At the risk of self-importance (something of which, let me make crystal clear, I most assuredly cannot be accused), the news from Bradford reminds me of some things I have written in the past.
The first goes back years to an article about attempts to reform the Labour Party. This involved me reading a whole slew of pieces on this topic ranging over several years. I noticed that reformers always looked at the problem through the lens of what was best for the Party not what was best for the country. Instead, I argued, the starting point should be the increasingly deleterious impact that the nature and behaviour of parties was having on the overall health of our political system. My conclusion was something like this: ‘the major political parties have a stranglehold over representative politics, but in decline, their withering handhold tightens threatening to throttle the life out of our politics’.
The second extract is more recent, part of an argument about how quickly the political consensus can change. Around fifteen years ago there was an aphorism often quoted by modernisers in the major parties; ‘the right has won the economic argument, the left has won the social argument and the centre has won the electoral argument’.
Now it feels like this argument is neatly reversed. In the face of credit crunch, growing market- generated inequality and the continued irresponsibility of the financial sector the left has the most powerful economic argument, in the face of worries about social cohesion and individual responsibility the right has the most cogent social argument and – increasingly – the extremes are threatening to win the electoral argument.
As the economic slump continues and people start to realise that lower living standards and declining social provision are not a temporary aberration but more likely the new reality, public anger is likely to increase. While the major parties continue transfixed by each other in a bubble of self-interested complacency, outsiders with a strong populist message – whether it’s Galloway in Bradford, Geert Wilders in Holland or Marine Le Pen in France, tap into deep reservoirs of resentment and alienation.
The public at large needs to accept an argument which is intially unpalatable – tougher times are here to stay and we need to adjust our expectations and behaviours – so that they can move to a more positive one – it is better to live now than at any time before and we can find a new path to progress.
But such a message can only be projected from a position of intellectual courage and personal authenticity. How far we seem from this.
As I wrote earlier this week, the failure to reform political funding is entirely explicable in terms of a combination of party self-interest and weak leadership. The fact that Labour had apparently no idea that George Galloway posed a threat until it was far too late underlines how shallow are the roots of the ‘people’s party’ in most working class communities
Just as prosaic trade union general secretaries and Machiavellian fixers among the PLP constrain Ed Miliband, so the Conservative leadership seems too often to be in thrall to a cabal of opinion formers centred around their back benches, the Daily Telegraph and Spectator.
As Nick Robinson says, Bradford West is an untypical constituency with an untypical voting record but Galloway’s success is also part of a bigger pattern. Many historians predicted that severe economic downturn would likely sooner or later to be the midwife to a more volatile and extreme politics.
The main parties combine a continued hold over the Westminster system with a combined popularity lower than at any time in living memory. I can’t say exactly what kind of leadership is needed now, although I believe I would recognise it if I saw it, but politics abhors a vacuum. As Galloway showed last night, if the mainstream doesn’t fill it there are plenty with more radical answers waiting to do so.