Cartoon reactions to Bradford West must stop

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 31 March 2012 in Diary
All commentators think that the quirky, terrible result for Labour in Bradford West vindicates what they've said all along. But which is it?

"...well this just confirms what I've been saying all along."

Barely was the shocking result out of the mouth of the Bradford West returning officer, than the pundits were rushing to tell us what it all meant and how it confirmed what they had been saying all along (despite none of them predicting this result at all). Saying about what? About Miliband, about Iraq, about the core vote, about policy on the Middle East, about multiculturalism, about political Islam, about Blair? You choose your pundit and you takes your choice.

Yesterday I wrote a fairly shell-shocked piece asking a few initial questions. Because I'm a natural organiser rather than policy wonk, my thoughts ran in that direction. I wanted to know practical campaigning details. I think they’re important. But equally, I was determined not to jump to easy, lazy conclusions about policy. I don’t think there are singular totemic policies that swing elections, I think they’re a factor. For example, if this elections was fought and won over Iraq as George Galloway clearly did in his initial tweets (his first was proclaiming the Glory of God and his victory) why didn’t Labour lose in 2005 or 2010? However, I also think it worth examining how cut off from Labour Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have left young Muslims and what can be done about that. I wanted to start a process of actual examination. I’m encouraged to believe that that Ed & Iain McNicol do too.

Sadly, few seemed equally keen to take the time to examine this complex situation. The response I got to my initial inquiries wasn’t more and better questions that could help our process of enquiry. It hasn't been useful ideas to set the party on a path to finding the true failings in Bradford. It hasn't been additional questions that might aid an examination of what it is about Galloway that is attractive to particular sections of the electorate.

Instead I've been told that the result was definitely about policy; that the result was definitely about organisation; that the result was definitely about strong opposition to the government and their austerity agenda; that this was definitely a result of Ed's weak leadership; that this was definitely a result of Blair's policy drift; that I had ignored the Muslim question (I hadn't); that I had called for a Blairite whitewash (I hadn't).

Instant reaction is essential after a disaster. It's important for the walking wounded to keep walking. Displacement activity helps. But it is simply crazy for anyone to claim they know exactly what went wrong at precisely every step of the Bradford campaign. It will take hard work and a determined and cool-headed analysis to investigate. We can’t let this displacement fool us into thinking either that we have taken real action or that no further action is required.

But too many people seem too ready to accept a cartoon version of what fits their narrative. Why dig deeper if you can just assume validation of your original standpoint, in bright Technicolor no less?

In order to change, Labour needs to learn. In order to learn, Labour needs to listen. To really listen - not to nod along and assume the electorate is telling us what we want to hear. And that's true for Red, Blue, Purple and Sky Blue Pink Labour. Then we need to take the findings of that listening exercise and do something real with it. Embody the changes the electorate are asking us for.

Bradford West was a monumentally bad result for Labour, but a quirky one too. The Yorkshire sense of humour and whimsy has played a blinder with this one. It's hard to imagine a result much worse, yet one which equally fails to justify the long-running lament of any of Labour’s tribes. We lost to a candidate running to our left and who is widely considered in Westminster to be a political joke. We lost at a time when we’re ten points ahead in the polls, during the government’s worst week so far, just as their luck started to fail. The Lib Dems lost their deposit. The Tories nearly did.  

Maybe it's that very quirkiness that has ensured that for many today, commentary has been business as usual. Bradford West just another imagined score on their personal tally of "I told you so". As I’ve said all along, what a shame.

Tags: Bradford West, Ed Miliband, George Galloway, Iain McNicol, Labour Party

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