It should have been a walk in the park for Labour. The week after a series of bad news stories for the Conservatives, mid term, in a seat where Labour has never really been seriously challenged.
Instead the Big Brother cat romped home as the electorate in Bradford West were uninspired by the offering put before them by the Labour Party. That Labour didn't even see it coming says a lot about their own campaign organisation and intelligence.
Not that the Conservatives can take comfort either. The swing against was not far off the 36.6% swing against Labour.
No this was a vote about a plague on all your houses.
Some commentators claim that the circumstances in Bradford West are unique and unlikely to be replicated elsewhere. I beg to differ. What has happened in Bradford West is a symptom of when political debate fails to inspire and engage the electorate. The swing to Respect might not happen elsewhere but the electorate will happily give the major parties a bloody nose by voting for minor parties.
In my own patch in Thurrock, the BNP and UKIP are the beneficiaries of the anti-politics vote. In 2007, the BNP achieved a quarter of the vote in the local elections and came close to beating Labour into fourth place in the European elections in 2009.
So why are more people tempted to vote for fringe parties? For what it is worth here is my analysis.
1) Political debate takes place in a space which is remote from many people
At the last General election on the doorsteps everyone wanted to talk about immigration and none of the Party leaders wanted to talk about it. It is therefore unsurprising that poll after poll suggests that this is the one issue that electors want to put directly to their political leaders, as they don't feel that their concerns are being heard.
In the media, political debate is more about point scoring and winning the argument. There needs to be more focus on using the media to inform and explain. Over and over again on the doorstep I am told 'you promised to tackle immigration and benefits and you haven't done anything'. Actually we have done rather a lot, but if we aren't effective at telling people what we have done they will get disillusioned and make a protest.
Strategy needs to be informed by what is really on people's minds, not what is running as the main news item on Sky News. They need to get out on the doorsteps not just talk amongst themselves. Political activists are not the best judge of what is really on the minds of the man in the street. I did chuckle this week when Ed Miliband came to Thurrock - one of the Party's top targets in these local elections - and addressed an invited audience of Labour members from across East Anglia. Public meetings are not for the faint-hearted, but there isn't really much point leaving Westminster if you are going to speak to an invited audience of party loyalists. I have my own programme of public meetings. Sometime the discussion is robust - but at least the public is given the opportunity to make themselves heard.
2) Politics is more than a marketing campaign
Politics is about ideas, values and principles. That is until New Labour came along and remarketed the Labour Party in an amazing piece of detoxification. After flat-lining in three general elections, the Conservative Party did the same. What we now have is a political establishment which obsesses about how it is viewed amongst different demographic groups, is frightened of offending anyone and as a result communicates in an increasingly bland fashion which fails to inspire. It also leads to initiativitus as politicians think they need to be seen to doing something about the latest issue to hit the headlines. The result is that the public see lots on noise and activity but it does not build up a picture of what a party is standing for.
Against this background it is unsurprising that people think 'we are all the same'. The expenses scandal has exacerbated the problem, by instilling an unhealthy contempt for the body politic on the part of the electorate. A contempt which does not bode well for democracy and is - actually - unfair on the majority of politicians who actually want to make a positive difference.
We are in a climate where times are tough. What the public looks for at these times is leadership. Politics needs to be reinvigorated so that the public do understand the consequences of the choices before them.
3) Stop treating Politics like an Oxford Union debate
There are times when I am turned off by the yah boo of the Commons Chamber at Prime Ministers Questions. Competing to have the wittiest lines when the nation is looking for leadership only affirms a view that the political establishment is out of touch with ordinary people and are all as bad as each other. The role of Opposition is not just to oppose and barack and heckle. The public expect leadership from all their politicians and should expect more maturity in debate than they often get. It is amusing that while the two Eds thought they were being really clever posing the media with some Greggs sausage rolls, George Galloway was stealing Bradford West from under their noses.
There are four weeks until polling day for the local elections. It is up to all of us involved in politics to engage, enthuse and talk about the things that really matter. If we don't, the political commentators will have a lot of freak fringe party results to keep them occupied.
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