Lessons from Bradford
One of the minor characters in The Crisis of Theory is Lawrence Daly, a Scottish trade unionist who left the Communist Party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and became, along with Thompson, a leader of the inchoate but dynamic movement nowadays known as the Old New Left. During Britain's 1959 parliamentary elections Daly contested the seat of West Fife and won many thousands of votes, finishing third behind the Labour and Tory candidates. As Daly's de facto campaign manager, EP Thompson arranged for scores of young left-wing activists from English university towns to travel north and beat the streets of working class Fife.
Last week another maverick Scot took on the political establishment in a working class electorate with the help of young activists from London and the universities. Campaigning under the banner of the small Respect Party, George Galloway astonished observers by winning the Bradford West parliamentary by election. Bradford West had been a safe Labour seat since 1974, and some pundits wondered whether Galloway would get even five percent of the vote there. In the event, he won more than fifty percent, and finished ten thousand votes clear of Labour's candidate.
Galloway is known through Britain as an opponent of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and his campaign in West Bradford was aided by supporters from out of town. But Galloway triumphed in Bradford because he got large numbers of locals to vote for the first time in their lives. A third of the West Bradford electorate is Muslim, and Galloway's denunciations of British imperialism in the Middle East played well amongst that section of the community (his unfortunate habit of praising Middle Eastern dictators he perceives to be anti-Western seems not have been widely noticed).
Galloway also appears to have won over the wider Bradford working class by counterposing an old-fashioned social democratic programme of increased state spending on welfare and jobs to the austerity measures favoured by David Cameron's government.
The shock result in West Bradford came at the end of a week when Cameron's government had endured several severe embarrassments. A secret recording revealed that the Tories were selling access to Cameron and influence over policy making to the rich, and a leaked memo showed that the party was deliberately trying to provoke a major confrontation with trade unions by stoking public fear about fuel supplies. Labour ought to have benefited from the troubles of the Tories, but instead it was trounced in Bradford. Many left-leaning members of Labour blame the party's poor performance on its continuing attachment to a political strategy developed in the early 1990s by Tony Blair and his allies. The Blairites believed that Labour's electoral success was dependent on getting votes not only in its traditional working class heartlands but amongst the middle and upper middle classes in the outer suburbs of towns like Bardford and in the south of England. Labour could rely on working class support, but it had to court the middle classes by abandoning old policies like the nationalisation of industry and the aggressive taxing of the rich and big business.
Blairism led to a long-term decline in Labour's membership and vote in depressed working class areas like Bradford. The class which had traditionally identified with the party felt estranged when it saw Blair and other leaders hobnobbing with the Murdochs and cutting company taxes. Britons with links to the Middle East were also incensed by Labour's support for George Bush's military adventures.
Since it lost last year's election the Labour Party has being trying to formulate a new political strategy. But Labour is divided into Blairite and anti-Blairite factions, and new leader Ed Miliband seems to lack the willingness or authority to plot a new course for the party. Fearful of alienating the middle classes Blair spent so much time courting, Miliband has echoed some of the Tories' talk about the necessity of spending cuts, and refused to call for the withdrawal of British troops from the Middle East.
Miliband's left-wing critics argue that, rather than trying to impress a section of the population that has gone over to the Tories, Labour should be reconnecting with its traditional working class base by promoting unashamedly left-wing, pro-union policies. The party should, they suggest, be happy to give up on the voters of commuter towns in Hertfordshire and Surrey in return for winning back the loyalty of the workers of Bradford and Sheffield and Hull. George Galloway's victory in Bradford West ought to bolster the arguments of these left-wingers. Galloway showed no interest in courting the middle class voters of the city, but instead went aggressively after the working class and anti-imperialist Muslims. Again and again he presented himself as a champion of the unions and the welfare state and an opponent of war in the Middle East. Support flowed his way.
There are some interesting similarities between the present political situations in Britain and New Zealand. Like the British, we in New Zealand have a Tory government which has lately been destabilised by a series of scandals. Like David Cameron, John Key is having trouble holding his government together and convincing the public that endless cuts in spending are any sort of solution to economic recession.
Like Cameron, though, Key benefits from a Labour opposition that refuses to go for the jugular. Under its new leader David Shearer, New Zealand's Labour Party is moving rightwards, in an effort to win support from the same middle class voters who obsessed Tony Blair. Polls show Labour lagging a long way behind National, despite the latter party's troubles. Critics of Shearer argue that Labour should be forgetting about the middle class vote, and instead trying to recover its support in South and West Auckland and other working class heartlands.
Although there are important differences between Bradford and New Zealand's cities, George Galloway's recent triumph does offer some possible lessons for Labour and other left-wing parties in this part of the world.
Galloway won because he was able to appeal to Bradford's trade unionists and to its anti-imperialist Muslims. In Auckland, Labour could have replicated Galloway's strategy by throwing its weight behind this summer's fight by the city's wharfies against deunionisation and mass redundancy. Instead of offering the occasional tepid speech, David Shearer could have made all his party's resources available to the wharfies, and raised their cause again and again in parliament. If he had done so, then he might have been able to share in the support the wharfies have gained from the public, and claim some credit for the victory they seem about to win.
Like Bradford, Auckland is home to a large yet marginalised community descended from relatively recently immigrants. Hundreds of thousands of Pacific Islanders live in the city, concentrated in the south and west. Although they have traditionally been supportive of Labour, Pasifikans have turned out in relatively low numbers in the last couple of general elections.
The Pasifika community still often feels alienated from middle New Zealand, and still frequently raises issues which no political party will champion. The sometimes capricious bureaucracy of Immigration New Zealand, which locks out Pacific Islanders with historical and family connections to New Zealand at the same time that it lets rich crooks buy their way into the country, is a perennial source of resentment in South and West Auckland. A party which championed the right of Samoans, Tongans, and other Pacific peoples with historic connections with New Zealand to settle here would become very popular in electorates like Mangere and Otara.
Auckland's Pasifika community is also dissatisfied with the city's education system. Tired of seeing their kids' native languages neglected in mainstream schools, they have set up institutions where the language of instruction is Polynesian. Despite academic studies which indicate the superiority of first language schooling, these institutions often struggle to receive recognition and funding from the state. Since the election of National in 2008, state funding for childrens' books in Pasifika languages has plummeted, making first language education still more difficult for the Pasifika community. Pasifika people have responded to this situation by creating the Leo Bilingual Pacific Languages Coalition, which now has thousands of members and holds public meetings in many parts of Auckland. Despite intensive lobbying, the Coalition was unable to win explicit support for Pasifika-language education from any party at the last election. A party which threw itself behind the cause of Pasifika languages would gain many supporters in Auckland.
Under David Shearer, Labour is unlikely to abandon Blairite political strategy by allying himself with trade unions in struggle and with Auckland's Pasifika community. Shearer and his advisers are aware that the middle class Pakeha voters they want to entice into the Labour tent have negative views about unions, and also dislike overt expressions of Polynesian culture.
But a party to Labour's left could learn from George Galloway's victory, and reach out to apathetic voters in Auckland and other Kiwi cities. The Mana Party has already played a leading role in the battle on Auckland's wharves. If the party gave similar attention to the Pasifika community's fight for language rights then it might begin to gain a mass base.
Footnote: before somebody turns up and accuses me of being a lackey of George Galloway or somesuch, let me link to this 2007 review-article for the Weekly Worker, where I took issue with the man's rather Stalinist understanding of the Spanish Civil War.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]