British by-election reflects popular disenchantment

British politician George Galloway of the Respect party gestures as he speaks to the media in Bradford, northern England, on March 30, 2012 after winning the Bradford West by-election. AFP PHOTO / ANDREW YATES

LONDON: A maverick leftist dealt a heavy blow to Britain's opposition Labour Party in a by-election that reflected general disenchantment with the country's mainstream parties.

George Galloway, a former Labour Party member best know recently for his role in a reality television programme prancing in a leotard, won a clear majority on Thursday in a constituency held since 1974 by Labour. The bearded scot has been a thorn in the side of Labour since leaving the party, campaigning against wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for a return to socialist ideas.

"No question they are going to be seeing this as a disaster," said Mark Wickham-Jones, an expert on the Labour Party from the University of Bristol.

"What is really disastrous for Labour is this could have been the best week since May 2010 and actually it turned in the space of a few hours into one of the worst."

Labour and its leader Ed Miliband might have been expected to profit from the misfortunes of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who has stumbled in recent weeks from one mishap to another.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition's annual budget last week was a public relations debacle, featuring a tax cut for the wealthy paid for in part by reduced benefits for the elderly.

Just a few days later, a newspaper uncovered a Conservative party treasurer trying to woo big money donors by offering meetings with the prime minister - tainting the centre-right party, for some, as politicians in the pay of the rich.

This week, a row over a tax hike on hot pies fuelled the notion, seized on by newspapers of all political ilks, that a cabinet stuffed with millionaires was out of touch with most in austerity Britain. Last but not least, ministers triggered panic buying of petrol over fears of a tanker driver strike.

"The three main parties are not connecting with people. This message really is an anti-austerity one and actually it's a message to the Labour Party of 'come back to your people'," said Salma Yaqoob, head of Galloway's Respect Party.

Miliband, palpably the biggest loser at the poll in the northern city of Bradford, appeared to concur with the first part of Yaqoob's comment.

"Clearly there were local factors, but I also say only four out of 10 people voted for the three mainstream political parties," he said. "We've got to understand the reasons why that happened in Bradford."

Galloway courts controversy and will certainly enliven parliamentary debates. He once likened George Bush and Tony Blair to "wolves" attacking Iraq and famously took on U.S. senators at a hearing on the Iraq oil for food program, accusing

the West of murdering thousands in an illegal war.

Galloway may however have overstated his win as "the most sensational victory" in by-election history. By-elections, called when an individual seat becomes vacant because of death or resignation, are known for upsets.

The Conservatives had tried in Bradford to turn all the attention on to Miliband's failings, but their share of the vote slumped to to 8.4 percent from 31.1 percent in 2010 - a clear sign British voters are deeply unhappy with the government.

The heavy defeat to Galloway came despite Labour pulling ahead in national opinion polls.

While analysts said the defeat did not spell the end for Labour leader Miliband, the loss of such a long-held seat in Labour's traditional north England heartlands is a severe blow.

Miliband, who took over from Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour party after the 2010 election loss, has failed to convince as a prime-minister-in-waiting, facing ridicule for an awkward manner and for dithering over how to renew his party.

Everything was set up for a victory in Bradford, a multi-cultural city once famed for its wool production - a victory that could have cemented the progress of an opposition finally enjoying some sunshine after a week of government blunders.

If Miliband could not now inspire victory in the Bradford West by-election, how could he win anything at the next full parliamentary election in 2015?

"It was an incredibly disappointing result for Labour," Miliband said. "Above all it reinforces for me something that I've emphasised throughout my leadership which is that we need to be engaged and rooted in every community of this country."

In Miliband's defence, the defeat in one of Britain's most ethnically diverse cities may not be indicative.

Bradford is home to a sizeable Muslim community specifically targeted by Galloway, who was expelled from the Labour party in 2003 for his vociferous opposition to the war in Iraq.

The Scot has campaigned against the war in Afghanistan and for the rights of Palestinians - a stance that has found favour with British Muslims, some of whom complain of being alienated or victimised by mainstream politics.

He fell from grace a little when he made an appearance on reality show Celebrity Big Brother, hopping about in a leotard and pretending to be a thirsty cat licking milk from a fellow contestant's hands, but his popularity among Muslims remains.

Galloway's team sent a letter to Bradford residents before the by-election in which he said he had "fought for the Muslims at home and abroad, all my life. And paid a price for it."

Despite one-off factors, the scale of defeat for Labour and the Conservatives - who both tend to score highly in Bradford - portends badly for all of the large Westminster parties as Britons drag themselves through seven years of austerity.





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