Mark Steel: A party which cannot accept how unpopular it is

If Respect voters are racist, why for eight years did they never notice Oona is black?
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Supporters of New Labour now find themselves in a philosophical puzzle. They went along with Blair's project because, despite their reservations, it seemed practical as the only way to win elections. But now it's clearly costing them votes. They're in the position of someone who says: "I didn't buy the comfortable car I liked as it was £10,000, which I couldn't afford. So I accepted reality and bought a 15-year-old Mini Metro, not what I wanted but practical, and the salesman let me have it for 37,000 quid."

The disillusionment with Blair's support for the war and big business is evident across the election, but most obvious from the success of Respect, especially the victory of George Galloway in Bethnal Green.

But New Labour supporters have another explanation, claiming the campaign against the Labour candidate Oona King was racist. For example, Tony Banks claimed she lost "because she's black", although in each of the previous two elections, Oona won a majority of over 10,000. So if Tony Banks is right, not only are Respect voters racist, for the last eight years they never noticed she was black, until George Galloway pointed it out. Maybe this will work in other areas. Next time, he'll run a racist campaign against Boris Johnson, and suddenly we'll all realise Boris is a Rastafarian.

Oona has added that people were told "not to vote for me because I'm Jewish". So how did Respect candidates win over 20 per cent of the vote in three other constituencies, for example against Jimmy Fitzpatrick in Poplar? Presumably by alerting everyone to the fact that Jimmy is Scottish.

New Labour are heading in the same direction as the Tories, so full of arrogance they can't acknowledge their own unpopularity. So when a candidate who backed a war stands in an area full of people vehemently opposed to the war, the reason she loses is because she's black and Jewish. She has admitted the war "was an issue", adding, "but there are many other issues". I'm sure there are.

But it can't be easy to address voters by saying: "OK, so I backed a war, fought on a premise proven to be entirely bogus, that has killed 100,000 people from a region half of you originate from. But you must admit I've lobbied hard for the extra zebra crossing outside Sainsbury's." Genghis Khan might as well have complained his opponents only went on about pillaging and plundering issues, paying no attention to his proposed reforms on capital gains tax.

Others have claimed the Respect campaign was driven by Islamic fundamentalists. But I watched the results at a packed Respect party in Brick Lane, in which Muslims cheered along with drunk Christians and atheists, in a scene Osama bin Laden would find very little comfort from. The Muslims present were militant only in the respect that they opposed the bombing of Iraq.

Another explanation offered by New Labour is "intimidation". One Labour supporter claimed: "On Tuesday, I was on the way to the corner shop when a couple of young guys threw a bottle at me ... Then they threatened to burn my house down. Now George Galloway is my MP." Even assuming this is true, nowhere does it explain how these events might be connected. I could say: "When I was nine, Richard Bennett, who sat behind me in class, stabbed my leg with a compass. Now Alistair Darling is Secretary of State for Transport. Doesn't it make you sick?"

Then there are complaints of Respect "flooding the area" with supporters. So that's it - an imbalance of resources. To make it fair, next time they should swap. Respect should have to get by on the odd million from a newspaper baron, while the Labour Party enjoys all the takings from a fundraising barbeque and comedy night.

In any case, how does New Labour explain the Independent victory in Blaenau Gwent, and the swing to the Liberals in every Labour area. Or Reg Keys, whose son was killed in Iraq, and stood against Blair himself, winning 4,600 votes and making the speech of the election. Perhaps they all claimed their opponents were black.

But at least we know such an election won't happen next time in Bethnal Green. Because Labour complained that, by standing, Galloway was "splitting the anti-Tory vote" and giving the Tories a chance to win. Now Galloway has won, logically that must mean next time Labour won't stand, as it would be them splitting the anti-Tory vote. So Galloway will be able to tell them: "Look, I understand you don 't agree with everything I say, and I appreciate that. But the only choice in this election is between me and the Tories."

And I 'm sure New Labour, despite their reservations, will do all they can to back George, as the only course that's practical.