Where were you for Bradford West?
Like many others, I was loitering on Twitter, having picked up around midnight that a shock might be in the offing, lured by promises of an announcement around 1.30 am. By 2.30 we were virtually chanting “Why are we Waiting”.
Some of us were doing so from behind our fingers. Say it ain’t so, was our refrain, that the Georgeous one was making yet another comeback. At times like these, I breathe a big sigh of relief to find myself not alone, not the only woman (in particular) immune to George Galloway’s oleaginous political charms.
The result was no less jaw-dropping for all that. To take a near 6000 majority in a seat dominated by one party since 1974, toss it aside and produce a36.8% swing on a turnout of 51% is awe-inspiring. You don’t have to like the man to be impressed.
In the days since, there has been much head-scratching, chatter and spin. Yes, this looks bad for Labour and makes Ed Miliband even more like the hapless Wallace than before. If he cannot find himself the political equivalent of Gromit and soon, then he will go the way of previous Labour party inventions. This by-election defeat – for defeat it was for the incumbent constituency party looking to hold the seat at a time when the government has had a spectacular run of bad luck, headlines and decisions – acts as a legbrace for his electoral ambitions. He approaches all future by-elections with this one dragging on his momentum: if he can avoid other such defeats, it will be removed but in the current climate, that seems a very big if.
And yes, this result is a damning indictment of mainstream establishment politics. A majority of electors in Bradford West – from all backgrounds, demographics and circumstances – voted a plague on all their houses; the silence of the non-voters only added to the cacophony.
In this by-election, the voters lashed out: feel our pain was the message. The fact that the airwaves and press pages have been dominated by politicians and commentators in England failing to do just that does not augur well. Expect more Bradford Wests until someone, anyone gets the message. We must hope that one of the more mainstream, or at least acceptable, parties does, otherwise the chasm between the current political class and the electorate might well be filled than a much more odious and empty political vessel than George Galloway.
Of course, we can, here in Scotland, sit smugly and point to Mr Galloway’s abject failure to secure a seat at Holyrood in last year’s parliamentary elections. Some might say that the canny Scots can see through the equivalent of a political charlatan (I, of course, could not, for fear of the litigious Mr Galloway’s lawyers). What he was offering in 2011 was largely similar to what he offered the people of Bradford West in this by-election, so how come they bought it and Glasgow didn’t?
It’s a complex one. Scotland has had its fair share of firebrand politicians swimming against the prevailing political current, Glasgow more than most. Perhaps the electorate was just tired of being offered more of the same, knowing that ultimately one maverick does not a movement make. Riding on the reputation of Tommy Sheridan might not have been such a smart move. Yes, he retains a small and uber-loyal band of supporters and promoters, but there are an awful lot more people who feel betrayed. Here was someone who set himself up as a man of the common people, in touch with their concerns and values, who proved to have the same feet of clay as many in the political mainstream. Many decent Glasgow folk who would like to see the establishment knocked down and different rules brought into play were nonetheless, disgusted at the shenanigans of Mr Sheridan and the impact his behaviour has had on the left of Scottish politics. To invite comparisons with Tommy might not have been the smartest move George ever made. The folk of Glasgow had seen and heard his likes before and for whatever reason, this time refused to buy into the rhetoric.
The strong support political parties enjoy from the Asian community in Glasgow is another reason that George’s kite failed to fly. There was no gap within which for him to slide, as there has been in other areas with a strong and populous Muslim community. Most of the community leaders and many ordinary voters who could help lead a Galloway bandwagon are already engaged with Labour or the SNP. The existence of crossover between the SNP and George Galloway (and other politicians of the old Scottish left) on issues like defence and foreign policy – with Galloway’s longstanding principles in these areas his most redeeming quality – removes the need for Scottish voters, with or without an Asian background and the influence of faith – to choose a person over a party.
Perhaps the reasons are less to do with personalities and platforms, and more to do with the prevailing political culture in Scotland. Many of us, this burd included, have been puzzled at the lack of outwardly expressed anger of the Scottish population at all that has gone on since 2008’s financial crash. There is no doubt that inwardly we are all seething: it does not take long for any conversation to get round to dissing the bankers, the Tories, the cuts, the costs and the general state we are in.
But we do nothing. We Scots who can and do march and protest better than anyone else on these islands – see Make Poverty History and Not in our Name, never mind Hands off our Water back in the day – are largely not. We have been underwhelmed by the Occupy movement and refused to join the rioters of last summer.
Could it be because we have hope? Despite its current dominance of the Scottish political scene, the SNP has not yet earned mainstream status. Yet.
There is still an element of voting SNP in rejection of the established way of things, in the knowledge that while the party has worked out how to join the political congregation in its Sunday finery, underneath it might still be wearing something more risque and rather less traditional. (Those of you reading this while eating breakfast might not want to visualise how that metaphor works for the FM…)
But I think Scottish voters might like that frisson, the fact that they know they are not casting a vote recklessly but still with the prospect of something more radical. The SNP no longer represents an empty, negative protest vote: it offers the prospect of something much more positive. Their core message in recent times of hope not fear is not just an electoral theme but a way of being that is slowly and surely convincing the Scottish people to choose something its own political destiny. Moreover, by offering a positive alternative – the bizarrely square circle of doing things differently in Scotland by not doing anything different at all from what we know and cherish – the SNP has shut down the opportunities for political opportunists like George Galloway to seize an electoral moment.
His contrasting fortunes in Glasgow and Bradford West show how far Scots have travelled politically in the last few years, how our path is now a very different one from English politics in particular, and how we are on a journey that the Scottish people show no signs of wanting to end just yet.
The fact that we have not yet decided what our final destination is means that we live in the most exciting of times, for the best of reasons. We are indeed travelling hopefully and we alone can determine whether or not it is better to arrive.