George Galloway’s victory in the Bradford West by-election on 29March 2012 was genuinely sensational and needed no hype – the raw numbers spoke for themselves. Having been a 33/1 outsider at the start of the campaign, bookmakers Ladbrokes alone paid out more than £100,000 as Galloway’s Respect party won 55% of the vote and beat the Labour party candidate Imran Hussain by over 10,000 votes. But what are the constitutional implications of his victory and does his victory represent any more than a freak occurrence achieved by a one off political maverick?
Galloway’s appeal among Muslim and disenchanted left leaning voters has been well documented, and much of the narrative has focused on the idea that his victory can be ascribed as a protest vote and rejection of mainstream politics – only 4 out of 10 voters in Bradford West voted for one of the three mainstream parties. But I have identified 4 structural factors that require more consideration with regards to why Respect won such a stunning victory.
1. Postal Voting
Prior to the by-election, George Galloway, Dawud Islam of the Green Party and the Liberal Democrat candidate Jeanette Sunderland had spoken out against the widespread use of postal ballots in the constituency at a hustings, with Galloway writing to chief returning officer Tony Reeves to ask him what measures were in place to tell voters of their rights. He claimed that 10,000 people have registered for postal votes in the constituency and that he was “vehemently opposed to the postal voting system on demand” because it was “wide open to fraud.” The Conservative party evidently agreed, publishing a booklet entitled ‘Don’t Let Anyone Steal Your Vote’ in the hope of preventing postal fraud in the constituency, with neighbouring constituency MP Kris Hopkins saying the move was prompted by a feeling that Bradford’s politics had been blighted by a lack of transparency in the past, because of scandals such as when two ex-councillors were jailed for fraudulent behaviour relating to the 2005 election.
The implication from all parties, amplified by the silence of the Labour party, is that the concept of ‘Biraderi’ or ‘Bradree’ – a Punjabi concept meaning ‘brotherhood’ – influences the way that people vote by encouraging large sections of communities to vote as blocks, controlled perhaps by a few key community leaders. On top of this, there are accusations that ‘Bradree’ has corrupted the internal democratic mechanisms of the Labour Party who have long taken the constituency electorate for granted, by creating a hierarchical candidate selection process controlled by a privileged few individuals who originate from the Mirpur area of Pakistan. David Goodhart of Prospect magazine suggests that ‘it is one of the open secrets of Labour politics that in large parts of the Midlands and the North it has acquiesced to the “wholesale” vote gathering system offered by some minority leaders.’ In the event of the election, Lord Tebbit described the number of postal ballots cast in the constituency as ‘suspiciously high’,
The irony of this though is despite Galloway’s previous protestations regarding the number of postal votes registered in the constituency and his long term objection to unnecessary postal voting dating back to the 2005 General Election when he contested Bethnal Green & Bow, the scale of victory suggests that Respect must have done well in postal balloting as well, which may be attributed to the ‘Bradree’ effect, or may be attributed to a rejection of ‘Bradree’ by young Muslim voters as discussed below. In either case more work needs to be done to reinforce the legitimacy of the postal vote as a means of democratic participation to quell doubts about elections that have abnormally high number of postal ballots.
2. Third party campaigning
The Bradford West by-election was notable for the influence of third party groups in the course of the campaign. A letter, signed in Urdu and attributed to George Galloway (but without his official logo or the name of an agent, as required by electoral law) contained implications that Labour candidate Imran Hussain is not a true Muslim and unfounded accusations that he drinks alcohol, forbidden in Islamic culture, an unfounded slanderous allegation which was repeated by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), who urged voters in Bradford to vote Respect over Labour. One of Galloway’s supporting speakers at a rally on the 25th of March was Abjol Mihah, a leading activist in Respect and in the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), an extremist group who Galloway has previous links with that led to him being exiled from the Labour Party in 2003.
3. Social Media
This by-election was notable not only for the personal popularity and star appeal of George Galloway the candidate, but for his mobilisation of his vote through his extensive use of social media. Labour MP Michael Dugher described Bradford West as ‘possibly the first by-election fought and even won on social media” and lamented the fact that George Galloway had “85,000 followers on Facebook while our candidate was knocking on doors the old-fashioned way”. A Labour activist in Bradford West said that on Twitter there were 10 pro-Galloway tweets by young Asian voters for every pro-Labour one, and said that he had “never witnessed anything like this in British politics. The communication between activists on the Galloway side was phenomenal.” Politicians are no longer as naïve about the power of Social Media to affect politics but evidently the cohesiveness of the Respect campaign took even the Labour party machine by storm.
With the popularity of the three mainstream party leaders hitting an all-time low, there is a growing phenomenon of disillusionment with mainstream politics, a group Lord Tebbit calls the ‘None of the abovers’ who don’t feel that the three main parties are speaking to their needs. This may be capitalised on by nationalist, minor parties and independent candidates in future elections. The use of social media by Respect in Bradford West to engage voters on the ground in this way and energise a disaffected populace in a seat previously thought of as ‘safe’ provides an interesting template for how future outsider candidates could conduct their campaigns.
4. Young and First Time Voters
George Galloway and Respect campaigned hard amongst young people and students, who all voted in large numbers in Bradford West. On the University campuses, he is celebrated for his strong anti-war stance and his appearances at Universities were all well attended as he struck the right note with the young and disaffected. By contrast, when the Guardian followed the Labour candidate Imran Hussain the reaction he got at University campuses compared to the one Galloway received ‘couldn’t be greater’, and after the result, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said that “Labour wasn’t connecting enough with young voters in Bradford’s Asian community.”
Targeting first time voters was another tactic employed by the Respect campaign – the Guardian reported that they spoke to ‘dozens’ of men who said they had voted for the first time that day, emphasising the disillusionment with mainstream politics that Respect were able to exploit. Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadan Foundation, told Channel Four News that the election signified a rejection of “Bradree” by the young voters of Bradford West stating “What this win shows is that the time when unelected elders in the community say, ‘we’re all voting for Labour,’ who would dictate to young Muslims how to vote, is over,”. Evidently there are lessons to be learned from the Respect campaign in Bradford West about how to engage with both young and disillusioned voters in order to promote a more involved, actively engaged democratic society.
George Galloway and Respect’s victory in the 2012 Bradford West by-election provides us with some interesting insights into several facets of our democratic system that we can learn from. The postal voting system needs to be examined in greater depth to check for electoral irregularities and more work should be done to ensure greater transparency of the rules surrounding electoral campaigning by third parties in order to ensure that slander and mistruths aren’t tacitly tolerated by any of the candidates taking part in an election. The bigger parties in particular also need to examine how they can better improve their social media presence to engage younger and disaffected voters in order to maximise the number of people actively taking part in the democratic process, a strategy employed by George Galloway and Respect to great effect in Bradford West.