London, United Kingdom - The American Congressman Tip O'Neill once remarked that "all politics is local". But some political events are more local than others, if the response to George Galloway's victory in the Bradford West by-election last week is to be believed. Speaking on Radio 4's The Week in Westminster, David Cowling, the BBC's head of political research, assured listeners that the result was a "one-off":
"It has something to say about the Muslim community in Britain, which is not unimportant and may have implications for the future. But this is not politics as we know it. Bradford West is a strange seat... In terms of giving us a mirror of what's going on in Britain, I think it has very little value at all."
London, United Kingdom - US Congressman Tip O'Neill once remarked that "all politics is local". But some political events are more local than others, if the response to George Galloway's victory in the Bradford West by-election last week is to be believed. Speaking on Radio 4's The Week in Westminster, David Cowling, the BBC's head of political research, assured listeners that the result was a "one-off":
It has something to say about the Muslim community in Britain, which is not unimportant and may have implications for the future. But this is not politics as we know it. Bradford West is a strange seat... In terms of giving us a mirror of what's going on in Britain, I think it has very little value at all.
Others joined Cowling in pointing out Bradford West's habit of swimming against the tide. On Friday of last week, for example, the Financial Times noted that "in previous elections its voting patterns have tended to defy the national trend".
As well as the supposed singularity of the place, commentators and politicians highlighted the qualities of the candidate. Labour MP Tony Perkins told the Press Association that George Galloway's celebrity was "a very significant factor":
There was a great deal of people, who in this city, voted for the Labour Party 18 months ago. A tiny number at that time were voting for Respect. Now since then, we have seen the Labour Party get more popular in the national polls, yet in the space of three weeks George Galloway was clearly able to capture the mood, particularly of the younger voters.
In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland set out an argument that combined the Bradford-is-unusual explanation with a nod to Galloway's charisma:
There are not many constituencies with comparable numbers of Muslim voters for whom Iraq and Afghanistan are still dominant issues and, as one senior Labour figure puts it: 'There's only one Galloway'. Even roving George, who has put his florid oratory at the service of constituents from Glasgow Hillhead to Bethnal Green and Bow, can only represent one seat at a time.
In language strikingly similar to Cowling's, Freedland seemed to endorse the idea that "Bradford West was a one-off result produced by a truly one-off politician".
But while Bradford West, like every constituency, has its own, particular, characteristics and Galloway is a highly unusual politician, this attempt to dismiss the result as a one-off with little or no wider significance won't do.
Crucially, we should register the sheer scale of the change in voting patterns. In the 2010 general election, the Respect party received 1,245 votes. Less than two years later it took 18,341 votes, more than half of the total number cast.
Labour went from 18,401 votes to 8,201 and lost the seat. But the Conservative collapse was, if anything, more precipitous. Their support fell from 12,638 in 2010 to only 2,746 in 2012. Meanwhile, two thirds of the Liberal Democrat vote vanished.
If this was a protest, it was a protest against the political establishment as a whole, rather than against one party in particular. And while Cowling might want to claim that the result only tells us something about "the Muslim community", Respect secured high levels of support all over the constituency. Christians and agnostics also warmed to Respect's call for increased public sector spending.
What Galloway achieved last week is more striking than his 2005 victory in Bethnal Green and Bow, where Respect defeated Labour with a much smaller majority and took around a third of the votes cast. In Bradford West, Respect went from the political margins to take more than half the vote in only two years. If Tony Perkins is to be believed, Galloway's party covered most of the distance in three weeks. Galloway has shattered the conventional wisdom about what is politically possible. There are far fewer "safe seats" in Britain than we thought.
This is an important lesson for those seeking a sensible response to the financial and economic crisis. The Occupy movement and UK Uncut have so far challenged the governing consensus on a symbolic level and in the field of communications and they have scored some significant successes.
But Bradford West raises a new possibility. Perhaps participatory democracy can substitute for charismatic leadership of the kind Galloway offers. Perhaps those who reject the implicit truce on the economy brokered by Labour and the Coalition can use assemblies to establish a programme of reform and engage effectively in politics at a constituency level. This need not mean fielding "Occupy" candidates. It must mean using techniques from the occupations - debate between equals above all - to develop a political movement that is not captive to any of the established party machines.
The mainstream political parties and the major media are not currently capable of articulating a serious response to the economic crisis in Britain. The common sense on which they relied for a generation now stands exposed as a fantasy of wishful thinking and self-interest. They are stuck mouthing the same inanities, in the hope that no-one will notice. Respect challenged their insistence that there is no alternative to austerity.
Alternative to austerity
There is an alternative. It is up to us to describe it, and to secure it through the ballot box. We already know the outlines of what is needed. We must reduce the power of finance and restore the bargaining power of workers, tackle tax evasion and avoidance and place capital under more complete democratic control. All quite straightforward, but a handful of professional politicians cannot hope to achieve this without our informed and patient support. General prosperity can only ever be the achievement of an assertive and undaunted public.
Once a freely deliberating people have discovered a programme that serves the interests of the majority, they can find candidates of their own, or apply pressure on existing party politicians. After all, ambitious careerists can be relied on to do what is right, once they know for sure that there is no other way to save their careers.
Many influential commentators are telling us that Bradford West was a one-off. But taken with the occupations of the past year, the result tells us something important about what can be done, and how to do it. In the years ahead we can force the political class to start addressing the country's problems. If necessary, we can replace them. But we will only secure the changes we need if we meet and talk among ourselves, confident that when we act as citizens we matter.
We have until the next election to turn every constituency in the country into a popular assembly. Let's take that as the lesson from Bradford West.
Dan Hind is the author of two books - The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His essay - Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty - was published on Kindle on March 20.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind
Source: Al Jazeera