Last month British voters elected George Galloway of the Respect Party to parliament in an admittedly spectacular electoral coup. This is a man who once addressed Saddam Hussain, "Your Excellency, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability, and I want you to know we are with you until victory, until Jerusalem". This is a man who said the planes of September 11th were the product of a 'swamp of hatred' West itself created.
During the campaign, and less than a month after the killing of five British soldiers in Afghanistan from the very region he won his seat, he said coalition soldiers had 'died in vain'. And yet more than half the voters chose him, thrashing the Labour Party that had represented the seat safely for almost 20 years.
The Respect Party does not have a monopoly on extremism in UK politics. Surely, the mirror image of Galloway's Respect is the British National Party, who have in the same time grown a few hundred votes nationally to more than half a million in the cause of ultra-nationalism. They too have exploited the politics of division, with significant electoral showings in Bradford West itself, and converting their higher profile into two seats in the European Parliament in 2009. In the absence of a national platform, a groundswell of anti-immigration and anti-Islamic opinion has also coalesced in the English Defence League, a far-right organisation reported to have a large following of 'soccer casuals', infamous for creating disorder from what should be happy sporting events.
How did this happen? Media pundits were quick to blame the Bradford result on the lacklustre Labour leadership of gaffe prone Ed Milliband. Others point to the size of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrant communities in Bradford who deeply resent the war on terror. Both must have had a role to play.
In fact Conservative MP Douglas Carswell was nearer the mark when he spoke of a new insurgency, brought about by 'a crisis of confidence in the ability of voters to elect people who can change the public policy settings within the country' and that 'there is a sense we are governed by a little Westminster clique and in a sense that is right'. It makes sense that in the real-time age of Twitter and e-Petitions, people want their views to be heard. But the trend for political parties to use technology to stay 'on message' and manage the media though spin works in exactly the opposite direction, to centralise and obscure.
When politicians do not respond to public opinion, they invite characters like Galloway to demagogue a single issue and translate it into a wider movement with more militant methods and goals. It is true that Britain's London-based political elites have largely ignored the most salient issues from each side of the political debate, notably immigration, economic stagnation and the anti-war movement. Despite large majorities favouring reduced immigration, the Blair government and now David Cameron's coalition have added more than 200,000 immigrants on average per year, including many dislocated 'asylum seekers' to deprived areas like Bradford West.
At the same time, it is no surprise voters rejected the Labour nominee Imran Hussain, who was groomed by a national leadership obsessed with public relations and determined to avoid any associations that could hurt their party among the wider middle classes, especially in the South East. Suffering disproportionately from the economic downturn and instinctively opposed to the war in Afghanistan, they did so by a margin of two to one in favour of Respect.
Arguably, a more responsive politics requires candidates who better reflect the views of the people, so they can represent them more faithfully at the national level. One option, as in the United States, is Primary elections where candidates must first compete for the party nomination from those they hope to go on to represent, rather than being appointed by party apparatchiks. After all, a little competition never hurt anyone.
The greatest example of a Primary process harnessing grassroots democracy to bring real political change must be the US Tea Party movement. Their ability to replace Republican nominees in some, if not all, cases made the federal deficit the focus of the 2010 mid-term elections. It has changed the terms of the national debate and influenced even the Obama administration, as well as neutralising more extreme anti-government elements who could have hijacked the issue.
Certainly in an open Primary it is unlikely Galloway would have won the nomination in a seat that includes moderate wards like Thornton, Allerton and Clayton, while someone capable of defeating Respect could have. But even if 'Gorgeous George' did get it, his contribution would be a shrill voice from the Labour backbenches. As things stand, he has incited more than 300 new Respect candidates, flush with the taste of victory, to stand in May's local government elections. They are the best recruiting sergeants the EDL could ever have.
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