Mary Ann Sieghart: George Galloway's victory was spectacular – but misleading


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Are we entering a new era of left-wing populism? "Stop this cuts madness!" cried George Galloway's leaflets in the Bradford West by-election. Ken Livingstone has a classic left-wing populist message for the voters of London. And in France, François Hollande, the Socialist presidential candidate who says the world of finance is his enemy, promises a 75 per cent tax on people earning more than €1m and a €20bn boost in spending to create jobs.

Galloway won, against all expectations. Hollande is ahead in the polls. If Livingstone and Hollande win too, Ed Miliband will be under huge pressure to move his party to the left. And the argument – as superficially attractive as it is wrong – will be harder than usual to resist.

People are angry – very angry. They're scared too. If they are unemployed, they're in despair of getting back to work. Even if they're still working, they're worried that they may lose their jobs, and their spending power has been squeezed. It can only get worse, as most of the cuts haven't yet hit. Times are extremely bleak.

What are politicians telling them? Conservatives and Liberal Democrats say, "We understand your pain but there's no alternative, and it's going to have to get worse." Labour says, "We understand your pain but we can only fiddle about at the edges to help you." George Galloway says, "Stop this cuts madness!" Which do you think is the most immediately appealing?

If voters were rational automatons, unencumbered by inconvenient emotions such as fear and anger, they might be thrilled that the Coalition is tackling the deficit and reward them for it. Theoretically, they do – at least, they say they trust David Cameron and George Osborne more than the two Eds to run the economy. But when it comes to any individual deficit-cutting measure, they oppose it. The Independent on Sunday's ComRes poll yesterday showed 71 per cent disapproving of the pasty tax and 64 per cent against the granny tax.

You can see how seductive it is to hear a politician cooing, "It doesn't have to be like this," whether he is Galloway, Livingstone or Hollande. Even Barack Obama is likely to win this year's presidential election on a record of stimulus rather than austerity.

What's more, it has been some time since Labour had to worry about a party to the left of them. The Liberal Democrats filled that slot, up to a point, during the Iraq war. But Labour has never really had the problem that the Tories have with Ukip, which is that as soon as they move to the centre, they lose their more hardline voters to the fringe. Now it does.

A rush to the left is certainly seductive, but so, for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was a sex party full of prostitutes. Both may be sweetly satisfying at the time, but they don't half have the power to damage you later. For even if a left-wing, populist message gets you into government, you then have the problem of governing on a manifesto that wouldn't last a week in the bond markets.

It's also worth challenging the left's analysis of the Bradford West defeat. If Labour had been less arrogant and complacent, it could easily have won. The party assumed that the Asian block vote was as solid as the trade-union one. Yet the Cantle report into the Bradford riots, published in 2001, specifically identified the disaffection that Asian youths felt for their so-called community leaders. Their votes couldn't be delivered en masse.

According to Sean Dolat, a young Labour activist in Bradford West, Galloway trounced Labour in social media. On Twitter there were 10 pro-Galloway tweets by young Asian voters for every pro-Labour one. Dolat's student friends were inundated with emails and texts from the Galloway camp. "Their campaign was so much better organised and so much more enthused," he writes. "I've never witnessed anything like this in British politics, and I really don't say that lightly. The communication between activists on the Galloway side was phenomenal."

Not only was Labour lumbering and flat-footed against a campaign that ran at Twitter's speed of light. It also identified the wrong opponent. One Shadow Cabinet minister admitted to me yesterday that "because Bradford West was a Tory target in 2010, we thought they were the enemy". So none of the many damaging facts that could have been disseminated about Galloway made its way into Labour's leaflets.

Instead Labour campaigned against national government policies, while Galloway talked mainly about local concerns, such as the hole in the ground in Bradford city centre that should have been a Westfield shopping mall. Labour's was a classic mistake, particularly in a by-election. Potholes are always going to be more potent than post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory or any other Westminster waffle.

Labour should have known better. Its most successful campaigners at the last general election – Gisela Stuart in Birmingham and Margaret Hodge in Barking – won by listening attentively to their constituents and addressing their local concerns. Voters hate being talked at or taken for granted, as Labour did in Bradford West.

There is a bigger lesson for Ed Miliband, though, and it doesn't involve moving to the left. What Bradford West and the recent elections in Scotland showed is that the unpopularity of the Tories and Liberal Democrats doesn't automatically translate into popularity for Labour.

Labour has to give voters reasons to vote for it, not just reasons to vote against the Coalition. They don't have to be wildly left wing and populist. But if all the party has to offer, in the words of another Labour MP, is "wonky bureaucratic answers to problems, vacuous phrases and no coherent story", then it mustn't be surprised if voters are lured instead by the empty promises of a left-wing, populist candidate. Labour has to start telling its own story, fast.