There is a by election in Manchester Central on 15th November. Clearly there is no chance that Respect can tear this rock solid safe Labour seat away from Her Majesty’s Opposition – but there was no chance that Respect would win Bradford West either. Will this be another by-election upset? Let’s look at the factors which helped Galloway in Bradford.
“George Galloway” wasn’t just a name people recognised. Voters knew the basic political planks he stood on and knew that he had caused an election upset before. Kate Hudson is no new girl on the block. She hasn’t just swanned into CND to get a job: she was part of the women’s protests against Cruise Missiles at Greenham Common in the early 1980s. When she became Chair of CND in 2003, the organisation adopted a more positive campaigning attitude and it kept up with developing protest tactics (non-violent direct action, imaginative protests as well as marches). Although her public role for CND probably held Kate back from speaking out on as many party political issues as she would have liked, she brought CND firmly into the anti-war activist fold and has also associated herself with organisations opposed to government austerity measures. On the other hand, whereas Galloway was a Labour MP, and won some sympathy for being kicked out of the Party, Kate is a former member of the Communist Party, which will make her appear more of a marginal political figure than Galloway. She is also, despite her campaigning credentials, more reserved and rather shorter on charisma thanGalloway, which is disproportionately important in a by-election.
Manchester Central has very high unemployment, a large number of single parent households and large numbers of residents living in social housing. This should be fertile ground for Respect: but though the Party has strong arguments against what the Government is doing, it is short on plausibility when it comes to how its criticisms will have an effect. In the 2001 census, just under one fifth of the population was recorded as being from an ethnic minority. This is much lower than Bradford West, and the ethnic minority population is spread between different ethnic groups. The strong extended family networks which spread support for Galloway, and ensured votes were cast, will not be a factor to the same extent in Manchester Central.
The constituency has always returned a Labour MP to Westminster, with Tony Lloyd (whose departure to stand in the election for police commissioner caused the by-election) securing just over half the votes in the 2010 general election (but the 46.7% turnout suggests a certain inner city disenchantment with Labour lies behind his victory).
Two Branch Labour Parties (Crumpsall and Cheetham) were suspended in May 2012 after 30 and 120 membership applications were respectively received from people living in the wards. Neither is in Manchester Central constituency, but as one is represented by Council leader Sir Richard Leese and the other by a former Lord Mayor, Afzal Kahn, the suspensions will have had an unsettling effect throughout the city.
The city’s Labour Party is doing a reasonable job of complaining about central government cuts, but it hasn’t galvanised the population into an anti-cuts campaign which can boost confidence in Labour. This is the dilemma for Labour nationally: how to fight the Con-Dems’ cuts, given that its own strategy was to make deep cuts in public spending, and how to fight Con-Dem policies, given that many of them build on unpopular measures which Labour introduced (anti-social housing, anti-immigration, anti-union, pro-war). The local Labour Party has promised to keep listening to the people ofManchester, but seems to be short on information about what the people ofManchesterare saying and what it is going to do about what it hears.
Labour’s candidate, Lucy Powell, is no stranger to Westminster elections: she came second to the Lib-Dems in the 2010 General Election in the Manchester Withington seat (so though she has experience, she may be seen as an out of touch careerist politician). She is rather a mixed bag politically: having been supported when she stood in the internal Labour Party election for its National Policy Forum by of the shadowy, Blairite, “Progress” group inside the Labour Party, she also organised Ed Miliband’s party leadership election campaign and then served as his Deputy Chief of Staff. Her pronouncements in the by-election campaign so far have been more orthodox Labour criticisms of the Government rather than inspirational.
By the time the voters of Manchester Central go to the polls, it will have been just over seven months since Galloway’s breakthrough inBradford. Since his victory,Galloway has been almost absent from the national scene. Although the media has moved on to other interests, it must be partly from want of trying: that’s a strange way to keep up the momentum of a national political movement. Whereas Bradford was able to galvanise general discontent behind a known “troublemaker” figure, that is far from saying that Respect has established itself as the home of the anti-cuts protest vote – or that voters, who have deserted Labour in their millions, have entirely given up on seeing Labour as the alternative party to the Tories.
Respect has had “Arab springs” before, only to fall back at the next electoral hurdle. To date, no small left of centre party has brought a lasting change to the political scene. It is unlikely that CND will be advertising for a new General Secretary before Christmas.
•Judge for yourself: watch Kate Hudson on the video on our home page.