by Atul Hatwal
This morning it’s a cold new world. But as the shock passes and the harsh reality of George Galloway’s crushing victory begins to sink in, the questions will become louder and more insistent. Two in particular will dominate: How could this happen? And what does it mean for the leader?
The party briefers will try to box this result as a freak. They will cite the combined effect of the swing from Labour towards Respect among the British Pakistani community and the collapse in Tory vote as a localised one-off.
They will be wrong.
The vote demonstrates two critical points: first, hell will freeze over before large numbers of Tories switch to Labour. After the week the Tories have had, it’s not surprising their vote was down. But Labour picked up no Conservative switchers and remains toxic to swing voters.
The reality is, for too many people, Labour under Ed Miliband is not a viable alternative. The polls on leadership and economic competence have been unrelenting since he became leader.
Earlier this month the Guardian’s ICM poll placed David Cameron and George Osborne 17% ahead of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls on managing the economy 42% to 25%. Meanwhile YouGov’s latest March figures on peoples’ preference to be prime minister had David Cameron 20% ahead of Ed Miliband 38% to 18% – that’s double the lead he held at the same point last year.
Second, the British Pakistani community has sent a clear signal to a party that has long taken their vote for granted: no more. Labour has spent two years since the general election agonising about Mrs.Duffy, Englishness and what are euphemistically called “white working class issues”. Well, congratulations, this is the result.
Simply cranking the handle on decaying community political machines and expecting the sheep to file through the pen will not work forever. When George Galloway condemned Labour’s use of “biraderi” or clan-based politics last night, he was right.
At some point Labour as a party will have to engage with its former ethnic minority supporters rather than just assume they will be there, regardless of whatever the party does.
But in one sense, there really is no excuse for such total and utter shock. This isn’t the first time that a feeling has taken hold in a formerly Labour supporting electorate that the party is no longer upto leading or even interested in the local community.
What just happened in Bradford now happens in Scotland as a matter of course. For Alex Salmond read George Galloway and the pattern begins to look a little more familiar.
But if the reasons for the result underline some of Labour’s wider electoral weaknesses, this is as nothing compared to the shattering impact that losing Bradford West will have on Ed Miliband’s personal authority.
Whatever passed for a mini-revival over the past week is history. The spotlight will be back on him and his leadership. The murmurs on the backbenches, frontbenches and Miliband’s own shadow cabinet will rise in volume.
The media will be littered with living obituaries for the leader while the parliamentary recess gives him scant opportunity to reset the coverage.
The unexpected nature of this defeat means nothing is secure. Everything will be a test and the expectation of failure will permeate the media on all that the leader does.
Events which could have been weathered, such as a loss in the mayoral election in London, assume a new significance. Ken Livingstone’s defeat, after Ed Miliband has hugged him so tight, would be yet another failure in a pattern of defeat. The narrative would be hard to shift.
For the media, his parliamentary colleagues and many ordinary Labour party members, Ed Miliband is like a boxer who has been dropped hard. His jaw is suspect and in any future skirmish there is a chance he could be knocked out. This doesn’t mean he will be, but from now on, his leadership will be run through with doubt.
Within the cabals of the parliamentary Labour party, the weekend will be consumed with fevered discussion.
Yvette Cooper’s ambitions for the top job are well known. The assumption had been she would wait for a Miliband election defeat before making her move – uncharitably dubbed the “human shield” strategy – but if Labour begins to haemorrhage even more support, might she be tempted to move sooner?
The prospect of picking up the party after a large election defeat in 2015 is surely unappealing and she has been eyeing the rising profile of the likes of Chuka Umunna nervously.
Suddenly, all is possible, if not yet likely.
In the country, formerly secure Labour electoral strongholds are vulnerable. In Westminster, the leader is bloodied and humbled. Dissent and doubt will dominate the internal party dialogue over the coming weeks while the Tories are free to govern as they see fit.
It’s difficult to establish a sense of equilibrium in the immediate aftermath of such a disastrous defeat, but this might just be the beginning of the end for Ed Miliband.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut