March 30, 2012 7:25 pm

Bradford’s protest

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When riots swept austerity Britain last year, few big cities escaped their flames. Yet Bradford, once a pressure cooker of social unrest, stayed quiet. The city’s voters have now staged their protest by electing the maverick independent, George Galloway, in the Bradford West by-election. Labour has been ousted from a seat it has held almost continuously for 38 years.

It would be dangerous to read too much into Mr Galloway’s win. Bradford West is not a good guide to the nation’s mood. In previous elections its voting patterns have tended to defy the national trend. Though Mr Galloway is effective in making his Respect party’s voice heard, it remains on the fringe. The man himself is volatile and divisive, though his opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has won him much support with Bradford’s large Muslim population.

Nonetheless, his victory should alert mainstream parties to a growing climate of disaffection as austerity bites. While candidates from the three main parties were attempting to win votes in neighbourhoods of crippling unemployment, their leaders were caught up in a pantomime row over taxes on pasties and grannies. Stump politicians such as Mr Galloway – and even Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party – have a certain appeal when mainstream parties appear out of touch.

The result was worse for Labour. With a 10-point lead in the polls, it should have been easily able to hold on to a “safe seat”. But the Conservatives, too, lost footing. The clumsy attempt to dress up a legitimate tax on pensioners as tax simplification has proved to be a grave mistake. David Cameron’s reluctance to publish the guest list for his private dinners with wealthy supporters may also have dented the party’s image.

The Bradford result may suggest that Britain’s Muslim community, its young people and unemployed, feel excluded from a political debate that has little to do with their daily lives. Yet it is still encouraging that four years into recession, and amid severe budget cuts, the protest is being made in the ballot box. Nationally, unemployment is still high and the economic outlook remains grim. Yet since last year’s riots, there has been no sustained groundswell of protest.

If Bradford’s vote does count at the national level, it is to signal to Britain’s political parties that this acceptance cannot be taken for granted. Politicians will have to stop fighting over pasties and start addressing the meatier subjects that matter.

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