It was not an election campaign that returned George Galloway to parliament as the new MP for Bradford West on March 29, in the process securing over 50 percent of votes cast and one of the largest majorities of any Member of Parliament currently sitting in the House of Commons, it was a political movement, one that grew exponentially in the weeks and days leading up to polling day.
Nothing like it had ever been experienced or witnessed by some of those involved, veterans of countless and mostly failed election campaigns, and soon people were running out of superlatives to describe what was taking place around them.
The wonder is that just over three weeks ago, Galloway had arrived in Bradford with just a handful of people in his campaign team and very little by way of money to fund it. But something truly remarkable took place. Decades of cynicism, disenchantment, and resentment over an entrenched Labour Party machine in Bradford, which had given rise to its very own label – the Baradari – the city’s very own version of Tammany Hall cronyism, corruption and political patronage – was almost overnight turned into a fervent hope and belief that with this particular election, and this particular candidate, a once-in-generation opportunity had arrived to uproot the machine and replace it with a new politics, serving the needs of a community that for too long had been looked upon as little more than election fodder.
On the ground the spark proved the active involvement of five brothers who together own and run their own firm of solicitors in the middle of the constituency. None of them had any record or history of involvement in politics up to Galloway’s arrival in the city. But what they did have was the respect of the community and an unsurpassed knowledge of the terrain, which they proceeded to call upon to take the campaign by the scruff of the neck, lift it up onto its feet, and propel it forward. They turned their entire offices into Respect Party campaign headquarters for the duration of the election and decided to dedicate a month to fighting and organising the campaign on a full time basis. From here they began to spread the word. Donations came flooding in. Then, as if sprouting out of the ground, came banners, posters, advertising hoardings, sound cars, placards, but most important of all an army of activists, the majority of them young people. With this youthful aspect came the sense and spirit of an insurgency from below, and soon the words Bradford Spring were being liberally spread to describe the phenomenon that was underway.
Alongside this subjective factor came objective conditions which ensured that Bradford’s needs after years of mismanagement and incompetence by a Labour controlled administration and local council, compounded by the vicious attacks of a Tory-led coalition government in Westminster, were many. With the youngest and fastest growing population in the UK outside of London, youth unemployment in parts of the city stands at 1 in 4, twice the national average. Married to cuts in services, a cycle of despair had descended – comprising alienation, rising crime, and schools that rank near the bottom of the government’s league table for excellence. A crumbling infrastructure as a result of a lack of investment and cuts to the local budget had deepened the impact of the recession in the city, leaving its centre colonised by charity shops, pound shops, and payday loan shops.
Moreover, a recent study had placed Bradford at the bottom of the retail security index, meaning that retail business are at greater risk of going out of business there than anywhere else in the country. Property prices have plummeted even further than in most of the country, and with manufacturing decimated in and around the city over the past three decades, an economic wasteland dominates. Interestingly, given the confluence of the aforementioned factors, Galloway’s campaign also drew support from local businessmen, tired of the gross mismanagement that had left the local economy decimated.
By far the most potent symbol of the council’s incompetence, and even corruption according to many prominent local voices, is the huge planned shopping and leisure centre development known as Westfield. The council sold the land to developers and pre-development work began in 2004 with the demolition of the former car park that formerly stood on the site. Millions of pounds in taxpayers’ money also poured into the project, but after six years in which zero construction had been undertaken, and after many of the retailers scheduled to take up slots upon completion of the project had pulled out, the development was mothballed in 2010. All that now stands in the spot where the centre was meant to have been built is a massive hole. Even worse, the original contract with the developers agreed by Bradford City Council inexplicably failed to include any penalty clauses over completion dates, with the result that moves are now being made to create a temporary park on the site instead – at a cost of £24 million.
On the ground resentment towards key officials within the council responsible for managing the schools system and local services had reached endemic proportions. The fact that a few of them live outside the city, in places where their families and children are cocooned from the poor schools and crumbling local services which they’re responsible for overseeing, had become a particular sore point, feeding the cynicism that had long taken root when it came to politics in general. Labour did not help matters with the selection of Imran Hussein as their candidate. A trained barrister and sitting local councillor, Hussein proved completely unconvincing, uninspiring and unsuited to the task. His refusal to debate with Galloway at local hustings events was not lost on the electorate, and his attempt to leverage support on the basis of communialism failed miserably. He was roundly derided by all sectors of the local community, and slaughtered by George in speech after speech, with the city’s youth playing a key role in leading a revolt against the local vested interests that made up his ever contracting support base.
George Galloway of course brings his own strengths to any movement, however on this occasion he outdid even himself, swept along and inspired by the sheer energy and dynamism of the campaign and its supporters, while in turn energising and inspiring them. It produced a synergy that produced a momentum which by polling day had become unstoppable. In concrete terms it manifested in him being on the campaign trail 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week, appearing everywhere in the constituency from boxing gyms, mosques, cafes, and restaurants to local businesses, colleges, schools and doorsteps. Everywhere he appeared a crowd materialised to listen to him speak, which he did tirelessly. On one memorable occasion the open-top election bus in which he toured the constituency in the final few days of campaigning was directed to the car park at the rear of a well known local restaurant.
Galloway emerged from the bus straight into the sea of people who’d been waiting patiently for his arrival. With his feet hardly touching the ground he was taken into the restaurant, up three flights of stairs and out onto a balcony, where a sound system had been set up in front of a giant Respect Party election poster. From this vantage point, overlooking the car park, he proceeded to talk to a crowd of hundreds, with more and more arriving throughout his speech. The cacophony of car horns that by this point accompanied his every movement and appearance throughout the constituency never let up, adding to what by now had turned into a carnival.
Pitching his campaign as a simple choice between ‘real’ Labour and new Labour, antiwar and pro-war, and anti-cuts and pro-cuts, able to do so in the knowledge that his entire political career has been founded on convictions that have remained solid regardless of the political weather, proved a strategic masterstroke. It did not hurt either that his years of devotion to the Palestinian cause and leadership of the antiwar movement had already earned him an iconic status with Bradford’s massive Asian and Muslim community.
Finally, and poignantly, an extra dimension was added to the campaign with the tragic death of Abu-bakr Rauf, who collapsed and died from a heart attack while out campaigning alongside the former and newly installed Respect MP. The 28 year old veteran of the local Stop the War movement and Viva Palestina convoys leaves behind a baby daughter and young widow, who insisted that the campaign continue regardless. The result was a sense of moral obligation on the part of those involved to go the extra mile in an effort to achieve the historic victory that emerged.
The potential political impact of this historic by election victory throughout the region is hard to quantify at this stage, though there is certain to be one. With council elections due in May, the conditions for the resurgence of Respect and a viable left of Labour alternative have never been more favourable.
After its annual Easter break, George Galloway will take his place in the House of Commons. The political establishment thought they were rid of him for good.
How wrong they were.