What are the constitutional impacts of George Galloway’s by-election win in Bradford West?

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.Image

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[1], with Galloway writing to chief returning officer Tony Reeves to ask him what measures were in place to tell voters of their rights[2]. 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’[3]  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[4].

The implication from all parties, amplified by the silence of the Labour party, is that the concept of ‘Biraderi’ or ‘Bradree’[5] – 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.’[6] In the event of the election, Lord Tebbit described the number of postal ballots cast in the constituency as ‘suspiciously high’[7],

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[8], 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[9] 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)[10], 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.[11]

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”.[12] 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.”[13] 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[14], there is a growing phenomenon of disillusionment with mainstream politics, a group Lord Tebbit calls the ‘None of the abovers’[15] 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[16]. 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.[17] 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’[18], and after the result, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said that “Labour wasn’t connecting enough with young voters in Bradford’s Asian community.”[19]

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[20], 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,”[21]. 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.

Conclusion

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.


[1] Just West Yorkshire, Bradford West By Elections Hustings 2012: Post By Elections Analysis (22 March 2012), Available at www.justwestyorkshire.info/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/BRADFORD-WEST-BY-ELECTIONS-HUSTINGS-2012-POST-BY-ELECTIONS-ANALYSIS.pdf

[2] G Galloway, ‘Fears over ‘large scale fraud’ with postal voting’ Vote George Galloway (15 March 2012)  www.votegeorgegalloway.com/2012/03/fears-over-large-scale-fraud-with.html

[3] K Griffiths, ‘Conservatives launch booklet to help stop postal vote fraud’ Telegraph & Argus (17 March 2012), Available at www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/9596811.Conservatives_launch_booklet_to_help_stop_postal_vote_fraud/

[4] Yorkshire Post, ‘Two Ex Councillors Jailed for Bradford Postal Votes Fraud’ Yorkshire Post (6 September 2010), Available at www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/two-ex-councillors-jailed-for-bradford-postal-votes-fraud-1-2588030

[5] H Pidd, ‘Bradford West by-election: George Galloway shakes up Labour relations’ Guardian (27 March 2012), Available at www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/mar/27/george-galloway-bradford-west-byelection

[6] D Goodhart, ‘Making Sense of Bradford West’ Prospect Magazine (4 April 2012), Available at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2012/04/george-galloway-bradford-west-bloc-voting-labour-ethnic-minority/

[7] N Tebbit, ‘Why the major parties can’t just blame George Galloway for their shocking performances in Bradford’ Telegraph (1 April 2012), Available at blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/normantebbit/100148522/why-the-major-parties-cant-just-blame-george-galloway-for-their-shocking-performances-in-bradford/

[8] M Tempest and agencies, ‘Galloway accuses Labour of Electoral Fraud’ Guardian (8 June 2005), Available at www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/jun/08/election2005.localgovernment

[9] A Gilligan, ‘A runaway victory for George Galloway – and all praise to Allah’ Telegraph (30 March 2012) Available at www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9176195/A-runaway-victory-for-George-Galloway-and-all-praise-to-Allah.html

[10] MPAC, ‘Bottoms Up Imran Hussain’ MPACUK.org (27 March 2012), Available at www.mpacuk.org/story/260312/bottoms-imran-hussain.html

[11] A Gilligan, ‘A runaway victory for George Galloway – and all praise to Allah’ Telegraph (30 March 2012) Available at www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9176195/A-runaway-victory-for-George-Galloway-and-all-praise-to-Allah.html

[12] BBC News, ‘Labour ‘failed to connect with Asians in Bradford’’ BBC News (1 April 2012), Available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17576752

[13] MA Sieghart, ‘Labour’s wrong if it thinks it’s time for a shift to the left’ Independent (02 April 2012), Available at www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/mary-ann-sieghart/mary-ann-sieghart-labours-wrong-if-it-thinks-its-time-for-a-shift-to-the-left-7606806.html

[14] J Pickard, ‘Mainstream party leaders’ ratings plummet’ Financial Times, (1 April 2012) Available at www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e967718a-7c12-11e1-9100-00144feab49a.html#axzz1qtYmutry

[15] N Tebbit, ‘Why the major parties can’t just blame George Galloway for their shocking performances in Bradford’ Telegraph (1 April 2012), Available at blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/normantebbit/100148522/why-the-major-parties-cant-just-blame-george-galloway-for-their-shocking-performances-in-bradford/

[16] T Clark, ‘George Galloway’s by-election win is a lesson in the power of the minority vote’ Guardian (30 March 2012), Available at www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/mar/30/george-galloway-bradford-minority-vote?newsfeed=true

[17] H Pidd, ‘Bradford West by-election: George Galloway shakes up Labour relations’ Guardian (27 March 2012), Available at www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/mar/27/george-galloway-bradford-west-byelection

[18] H Pidd, ‘George Galloway hails ‘Bradford spring’ as Labour licks its wounds’ Guardian (30 March 2012), Available at www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/mar/30/george-galloway-bradford-spring-labour?newsfeed=true

[19] BBC News, ‘Labour ‘failed to connect with Asians in Bradford’’ BBC News (1 April 2012), Available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17576752

[20] H Pidd, ‘George Galloway hails ‘Bradford spring’ as Labour licks its wounds’ Guardian (30 March 2012), Available at www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/mar/30/george-galloway-bradford-spring-labour?newsfeed=true

[21] Channel Four News, ‘‘Young Muslims defied elders to vote for Galloway’’ Channel Four News, (30 March 2012) Available at www.channel4.com/news/young-muslims-defied-elders-to-vote-in-galloway

Boundary Reform: the end of community representation?

The Constitution Unit was pleased to welcome Professor Ron Johnston, Professor Charles Pattie, and David Rossiter on Wednesday 11 January to discuss the Parliamentary Boundaries Review, the proposals to cut the number of seats in the House of Commons from 650 to 600 and to ‘equalise’ the size of these seats.

While there was empathetic understanding of the sheer difficulty of the task at hand in redrawing the political map of the UK to meet an inflexible target; there was considerable criticism for the methodology imposed by the English commission. The golden rules for the English commission were to not create new constituencies which overlapped between different local government areas, and not to split existing wards. To equalise the size of the seats, the goal was to create constituencies of 76,641 voters with a five per cent margin of error.

This dogma resulted in a map of England with unfamiliar looking new constituencies. In London, for example, 37 of the 68 created constituencies are cross-borough, creating combined areas which have relatively little in common, save their mathematic ability to add up to the stated target range. This led Ron Johnston to question whether “the notion of a place being represented in parliament has become secondary to the notion of a constituency with 76,641 constituents”.

One of the major problems in redrawing the map was the refusal to split existing wards, as the Scottish Boundary commission has. Wards vary in size dramatically, and the larger the ward, the more inflexible it is with regards to fitting it under the constituency size limit. The only alternative to splitting wards is to poach smaller wards from neighbouring counties within the same local government areas, meaning that some previous constituencies have been divided up between several new constituencies. It’s a reasonable assumption that some of these ‘sub-optimally placed” electors may feel disenchanted or confused; and voter turnout in the most radically affected constituencies may tell its own story about the utility of these reforms.

The alternative implemented in Scotland, of dividing up existing wards to create optimally sized constituencies which overlap local government areas creates constituencies which are far less radically changed and more recognisable to local electors. With this in mind, the question was posed: are wards still fit for purpose in their current form?

The Boundary Commission is engaging in a process of public consultation which overlaps with a 12 week written representation period before finalising its findings. The hearings however, have been mandated and not driven by public demand and subsequently the interest level has been varied throughout the country. The process has also been dominated by the local political parties rather than by individuals, another sign of the creeping disconnect between the project and the people it aims to represent.

We are left to consider the utility of the Parliamentary Boundaries Review as a whole for several reasons.

  1. It may not become law in time for the next election; in which case its findings will be obsolete as population distribution will already have altered the equations used to establish these new constituencies.
  2. Population shifts, growth in urban areas in particular, will mean that the whole process will start anew after the next election and boundaries will need to be redrawn once more. For many voters, this may be their third radical displacement in three elections and risks serious disenchantment with the process.
  3. The question becomes ‘Do communities and continuity matter?’ – do people still consider themselves as part of a locale, is knowing who their local MP is important to them? The coming danger is letting a mathematical equation create a democratic deficit which disconnects the public further from those who would claim to represent them.

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