A spectre loomed over the Bradford West by-election, a spectre that many in the Labour Party like to believe has been conveniently forgotten. The spectre of Iraq, almost ten years after George Bush triumphantly declared ‘Mission Accomplished’, continues to haunt Labour activists on the doorstep, and Bradford West lies as a testament to this uncomfortable fact. In Muslim communities like those in Bradford, the war in Iraq is still an issue which holds potent saliency, especially over young first-time voters, who grew up under a Labour government which appeared to many to be addicted to war. Labour is right to try to move on from Iraq, but collective amnesia is not going to wash with voters on the doorstep.
Ed Miliband was right to apologise for Labour’s role in the Iraq War, and this is a good beginning to the process of exorcising Iraq’s ghost, but one of the key successes of Galloway’s campaign was its consistent message of speaking out against a war in Iran and Labour has to acknowledge this. If Miliband is to prove that Labour has learnt the mistakes from Iraq and has regained its moral compass, Miliband must live his principles and join the voices already condemning any further interventions in the Middle East. This is not only imperative to restore the damaged relations between Labour and Britain’s Muslim communities, but also to recognise that many still feel a genuine grievance over the Iraq War, and simply dismissing them will not work. The Labour Party lost 5 million core voters from 1997, and too many in the Labour Party are quick to write them off as lost causes; this kind of mindset will never deliver a Labour victory. Following Bradford West, some have sought to attack Galloway personally; while this may provide succour to those disappointed by the result, it does nothing to explain what occurred in Bradford West and does even less to show Labour is willing to learn for the future.
Miliband has proven that when he wants to be, he can be incredibly bold; bringing the Murdoch Empire to its knees and challenging the orthodoxies of News Corps’ blessing, taking on Osbourne’s Millionaire’s Budget and exposing the class warfare the Coalition is waging from above. However Bradford West has shown that much broader boldness, over foreign affairs, and over austerity, is required if Labour is to win the battle against Tory cuts. Labour has to own up to the fact that it cannot take working-class Northern seats like Bradford West for granted; as much as support for the Coalition has been obliterated in the North, if Labour does not provide adequate opposition to Coalition retrenchment, communities of once-static tribal loyalties will look elsewhere, especially as younger voters begin to find their own political voice in turbulent times. Labour cannot simply rely on the fact that they aren’t the Tories in order to win elections; it must give voters a reason to vote for them, and the voters of Bradford West have indicated they do not want more austerity.
Miliband must not get waylaid by Galloway’s victory in Bradford West, this was not a judgement on Miliband as a leader. He must instead use it as an impetus to take the Tory Party’s ideological austerity head on. Respect have proven, as much as some in Labour wish to deny it, that opposition to war and opposition to cuts, if sold with conviction, succeeds on the doorstep. Putting conviction back into politics not only sells, it invigorates, and enlivens a new base of voters who otherwise would have stayed away. In a week that has otherwise provided ample ammunition for Labour to set out an alternative and stand up for working people, if Miliband is willing to seize the opportunity, Labour could become a rallying point for all those who want envisage a progressive future for Britain.