Politics has its own rhythm. It is governed partly by obvious dates, like general elections, but partly by longer-term movements in the tectonic plates. It is easy to overestimate by-elections – the media almost invariably do – but I suspect that Bradford West might just be one of the few that historians remember.
Until Thursday, it was all going so well: but only because the Tory-led government had been in disarray all week, not because of anything that Labour had done. The fact that Labour could lose an entirely safe seat to George Galloway, who won an extraordinary 56% of the vote, means that Labour will want to, at the very least, review its approach.
Aside from the unpleasant re-emergence of sectarian politics, there are two obvious stories: one is Labour’s collapse, for which we might come up with a lot of distinct reasons and which is already being dissected at length.
But while we might debate those reasons, the impact of Labour’s collapse is clear. Above all, the impact on its political credibility.
Oppositions usually win by-elections: a result which hands such a high proportion to a newcomer does not generally happen to oppositions where everything is in order. Rather to parties where the wheels are starting to fall off, as Roy Jenkins showed when he won 42% of the vote in Warrington in 1981. Someone now really needs to explain, convincingly, why this case is different.
The other major story, as Dan Hodges rightly identifies, is the resurgence of the far left as a political force. This matters to Labour in a way it does not to the Tories or Lib Dems. And many commentators are in shock about this second story. Indeed, until Thursday, many found it laughable the idea that the pro-Islamist, anti-American far left was on its way back into respectable politics.
They’re not laughing now.
So let’s look a little closer: why would this comeback happen now and not, say, in the late 1990s or early 2000s? Three reasons spring to mind.
First, in times of austerity, extremist politics of either the left or right naturally have more appeal.
Second, trade union politics were more moderate then: now they’re a way in for the far left.
And the third reason is perhaps counter-intuitive: the more you stay in the centre, the less people like Respect tend to bother you. From the mid-Nineties on, Labour’s success made the far left feel small, unconfident and useless. They became marginalised. Until 2005, when Galloway won Bethnal Green and Bow, there was arguably only one left-wing show in town: Labour.
On the other hand, the gradual ebbing of party popularity since that date, and the more we show signs of indiscipline or tolerance towards the views of the far left , the more we make them feel they have a toe-hold. The boundaries between our party and theirs blur, and become porous.
So, while Galloway himself is merely an irritation, the success of the far left at grassroots level means more. Bradford West is a point of inflection, and the soul-searching which follows will inevitably lead Labour in one of three directions. We may not have all the analysis to hand yet, but the options are clear.
The first, and least likely, is that it could jolt Labour to its senses. One reading is that Labour lost heavily, not because it had failed to provide a distinctly left alternative to the government, but because it had failed to provide any coherent alternative.
This, magnified by a number of local, organisational and one-off factors, led to the scale of the defeat. The remedial action is some clear policy direction and to shift Labour back towards the centre. But it is an unlikely course: if Miliband were lukewarm towards it before last Thursday, he now may decide to discard it, perhaps forever.
The second possibility is that Labour trots off to the left after Galloway, putting “clear red water” between Labour and the government. It decides, not to edge its way over the sanity threshold, but to sweep across it triumphantly with a full military escort. The cigar-clutching fingers of Galloway beckon us towards our electoral doom and we drift into the next election with the longest suicide note in history, reprise. Hopefully, also unlikely.
But Labour is now essentially trapped in a giant pincer movement, between a resurgent far left and a centre ground occupied by the government, whom we are not minded to attempt to oust.
So, the third, and most likely possibility is this: that the party will justify staying exactly where it is, rabbit-in-the-headlights, in the middle of the soft-left road.
And, indeed, Miliband’s message to party staff on Saturday seemed to indicate a failure of organisation, rather than any reflection on political strategy. Convenient, because tinkering with the organisation it is the one thing which, in opposition, you actually have the power to do. There may indeed have been organisational failure, but fixing it is a necessary and not a sufficient condition for a turnaround. The politics counts, too: people need to know as well what you stand for, and they don’t.
“We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road,” a mocking Nye Bevan once quipped. “They get run down.”
But there we may, for the foreseeable future, continue to sit. Never quite expecting that big truck.
This post was first published at Labour Uncut, and headed the 5 at 5 best blogs of the day at PoliticsHome.