By Mary Robertson, SOAS Student Respect
I went to Bradford a week before polling day intending to stay for a day or two to help with the campaign. A week later, I still hadn’t been able to bring myself to leave and Respect had secured the most dramatic by-election result since 1945.
Despite the shock that Galloway’s victory caused to the media and political establishment, it was obvious to anyone on the ground in Bradford West that something extraordinary was happening.
You could see it in the growing army of volunteers appearing at campaign HQ each day, ready, not just to lend a hand, but to take weeks off work and dedicate themselves to working round the clock on the campaign. You could see it in the palpable enthusiasm with which Galloway was greeted on streets across the constituency – his reception was usually more befitting of a rock star than a politician. You could see it in the electric atmosphere created at every meeting Galloway spoke at, as crowds of deeply frustrated local people at last sensed the possibility for real change. You could see it too in the levels of activity on the campaign Facebook group, which became a hive of debate and planning among campaigners.
Respect’s anti-austerity platform resonated widely in a city that many of its inhabitants feel to be sinking. Bradford’s JSA claimant rate is almost double the national average, whilst wage levels are well-below. The city’s schools rank tenth from bottom across the country. The sense of neglect is symbolised by a huge hole in city centre – a space created for a shopping centre that was promised but never built.
Frustration with the coalition government at the national level, and the Labour party at the local level, was reflected in the fact that only four out of ten voters voted for one of the three main parties. For Bradford’s inhabitants, its establishment politicians are at best nobodies and at worst corrupt and self-serving. Yet until last week, the lack of any credible alternative meant that these politicians were able to take the votes of their constituents for granted.
Desire for an alternative was evident in the hordes of young people who, galvanised early on by Galloway’s opposition to the war and support for Palestine, flocked to his campaign and gave it so much early momentum. It was evident in the teams of women, many engaging in politics for the first time, who became central to the campaign. It was evident in older first-time voters, often in their 40s, who had for most of their life shunned politics because they lacked faith in the three main parties. And it was evident in the fervour with which increasing numbers of people broke with their previous party allegiances, and often with their families too, to vote Respect.
Galloway’s candidacy rested on a platform that opposed the war in Afghanistan, favoured the abolition of tuition fees and argued for investment not cuts; it offered the voters of Bradford West a real alternative. This alternative was all the more appealing because it came from outside a political mainstream that has been discredited by years of arrogance, complacency and disregard for the needs of ordinary voters.
This election wasn’t just about George’s personality or celebrity. As a lowly campaigner I too met huge amounts of warmth and enthusiasm on door-steps across Bradford West as a desire for an alternative politics bubbled to the surface. A city has seized its chance for a change it so badly needs.