George Galloway tapped into widespread disillusionment among young Muslims – including deep opposition to the war in Afghanistan – to produce a stunning by-election victory in Bradford West.
A key factor in his victory was his ability to persuade first-time voters to defy instructions from older members of the community to vote Labour, a Muslim youth leader said last night.
The Respect candidate's shock victory, achieved with a swing of more than 36 per cent, prompted a fresh round of recriminations and soul-searching among senior Labour figures.
Ed Miliband, the party leader, will now face added pressure to preside over a strong performance in May's local elections.
Mr Galloway demolished a Labour majority of nearly 5,800 to capture the seat by a margin of more than 10,000 votes, while support for both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats slumped.
Mr Galloway, until 2010 the Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, portrayed himself as the only candidate pressing for the immediate return of troops from Afghanistan and focused on his support for the Palestinian cause and the "freedom of Kashmir".
About 40 per cent of voters in Bradford West are Muslims. In a letter to voters ahead of the poll, Mr Galloway said: "God knows who is a Muslim. And He knows who is not. Instinctively so do you." The former Labour MP also successfully played on anger with "bradree", a system of clan politics dating back to Kashmir that critics had blamed for delivering key seats in local Bradford politics to favoured Labour representatives.
They also claimed that the party's by-election candidate, the barrister Imran Hussain, had been chosen through the same system.
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of youth organisation the Ramadhan Foundation, said: "As well as an historic victory, it was also the end of bradreeism in Bradford."
He said young Muslims were angry at being told who to vote for by their elders and rebellious over Labour's assumption that it had a "god-given right" to run the city.
Senior Labour sources refused to comment in detail on their by-election disaster, attributing the collapse in its vote to "local factors". But the haemorrhage of support among Muslim voters in Bradford will send shockwaves through the party.
The Labour MP John Mann, who campaigned this week in the by-election, caused by the resignation of Marsha Singh through ill health, was scathing about the party's approach to the contest: "We had no game plan. No strategy. But what was particularly disconcerting was having no Muslim doorknockers, no Urdu speaker, no Hijab wearing woman talking to Muslim women voters."
Mr Galloway yesterday dismissed suggestions he owed his victory to mobilising the Asian vote, pointing out he was white and blue-eyed while Labour fielded a "Pakistani Muslim". He said: "There were no Asian voters in the election yesterday. There were British voters who have suntans like you and I aspire to every summer.
"Every person in Britain who has a right to vote is the equal of the other. We shouldn't get into any divisiveness along these lines."
Mr Miliband had been confidently expecting victory until the moment the votes began to be counted and aides had already planned a photo-call in the city to trumpet the success. Instead he suffered the embarrassment of the first loss by an opposition party at a by-election since 2000.
There was little consolation for the Coalition parties. The Tories limped in a distant third, polling just 2,746 votes with a swing of nearly 23 per cent from their candidate, Jackie Whiteley, while the Liberal Democrats came fourth and lost their deposit.
56% George Galloway’s share of the vote in the Bradford West by-election
As George got on the bus, Ed cancelled his...
So certain was Labour of victory in Bradford West, that detailed arrangements for Ed Miliband's victory parade through the city were sent to broadcasters before polling finished.
Film crews were told to assemble at City Park, a six-acre site containing fountains and a huge mirror pool, at 7.45am yesterday to meet the triumphant Labour leader.
His arrival had been timed to ensure maximum coverage on breakfast television and early morning news bulletins.
Mr Miliband planned a brief walk-about to meet the voters who had given his party its sixth consecutive by-election victory.
But as the votes began to be counted on Thursday night, Mr Miliband's team realised events were not going to plan.
At least the Labour leader was able to have a lie-in yesterday.Reuse content