I've come to the conclusion that I like George Galloway far more as an English politician. A year ago, I was extremely worried that he would win a seat at Holyrood, and then perversely (as he'd made clear he would) back Iain Gray as First Minister. He had also declared his intention to use his seat principally as a platform to attack the SNP and independence. In retrospect, it shouldn't really be a surprise that he underperformed after putting forward such a prospectus - where was the niche for a rebel ex-Labour politician who only wanted to provide an alternative to the SNP? Now, a rebel ex-Labour politician who wants to provide an alternative to New Labour is a different story entirely, and in all honesty I couldn't find a thing to disagree with in his victory speech last night, in spite of the characteristically blood-curdling language.
Galloway described his win as "the most sensational result in British by-election history bar none". He might have an arguable case based on the mammoth swing, and on his overcoming of the inherent difficulties of a fringe party taking on the big guns. But what really determines the importance of a by-election is whether it changes the political weather, and influences the outcome of the subsequent general election. A classic example is Govan 1973 - without that win, the SNP probably wouldn't have had the momentum to jump to seven seats in February 1974, and then the high watermark (to date) of eleven seats in October 1974. But in my view, the three most important by-elections in modern British history are Carmarthen 1966, Hamilton 1967 and Darlington 1983, because they didn't just influence the outcome of the subsequent general election - they changed the political landscape permanently. If the SDP hadn't gone into meltdown in Darlington, it's reasonable to suppose that Labour might have been pushed into third place in the popular vote in the general election a few months later, and as a result might never have returned to power. Hamilton and Carmarthen were vital because they transformed the SNP and Plaid Cymru from fringe parties into major players, which they remain to this day. Bradford West has the potential to do the same for Respect, if the party can put down roots and outgrow the cult of Galloway. It's obviously too early to tell if that will happen. But with two previously fringe parties (the Greens and Respect) now having representation at Westminster, England suddenly has an almost miraculous double opportunity to break free from the suffocating three-party centre-right consensus.
As I love nothing better than dredging up the faulty political predictions of others (my current favourite is Michael Gove declaring that "George Robertson was right!" on the day after the 2003 Holyrood election), I should probably come clean and admit that I wrote the following just 24 hours ago -
"I haven't been following Bradford West, and I was confused by all the talk of the Tories coming third - I wondered if the Lib Dems had come back from the dead without me noticing?
Silly me. But after what happened in Glasgow last year it's hard not to think that Galloway might fail to match the expectations."
However, if that makes me look a trifle daft, it's as nothing compared to the daftness of the excuses trotted out by the defeated candidates. Apparently Labour only lost "cos of Big Brother" (really? I thought that's what had destroyed Galloway's credibility forever?), the Lib Dems were "fighting for fourth place" and succeeded, and the Tories regard a 23% drop in support in a seat that was a target for them in 2010 as a disaster only for Labour. Well, I don't know about you, but I'm convinced...
Respect 55.9% (+52.8)
Labour 25.0% (-20.3)
Conservatives 8.4% (-22.7)
Liberal Democrats 4.6% (-7.1)
UKIP 3.3% (+1.3)
Greens 1.5% (-0.8)
Democratic Nationalists 1.0% (-0.1)
Monster Raving Loony 0.3%
Swing from Labour to Respect = 36.6%