Bradford West is such a maverick constituency, and George Galloway such a maverick candidate, that I doubt if many nationally relevant lessons can be drawn from his extraordinary victory. However, I think there are two important lesons for Liberal Democrats.
First, Galloway apparently made great use of the odious but effective simile that if a backside could have three cheeks then Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats are the three cheeks of the same backside. There is too much truth in this for Liberal Democrats to be comfortable, particularly in reference to the economy. Labour under Gordon Brown adopted the neo-con mantra of deregulation and unbridled market forces, with only modest attempts to curb inequality, the Tories have used the lie of the supposedly parlous state of Britain's public finances to implement their policy of rolling back the state and flogging off the profitable bits to their mates, and alas, those now in leadership positions in our party have signed up to the "inevitability" of public austerity, and without too many protests about the private affluence that goes with it.
To our shame the opportunity to be truly distinctive by sticking to the heritage of Beveridge and Keynes has been missed. No wonder fewer than four out of ten Bradford West voters opted for one of the three main parties.
(I must confess, however, having joined the party when we had only six MPs, to still getting a little thrill when we are lumped in with the "main" parties. Pity the blood sweat, toil and tears over half a century that have brought us from the fringes to the centre of power, albeit in a minor way, is being dissipated and our core beliefs obscured if not exactly abandoned.)
Back to the main theme.
The second lesson is that, in the high and far off times, Bradford West is one of those by-elections where it was Liberals who would have pulled of the miracle. Clearly those "Orpington moments" owed much to the protest vote and the "plague on both your houses" tendency. We have, quite rightly, forfeited the protest vote by becoming "mainstream", a process which preceded joining the coalition but which has obviously been exacerbated by it.
All the more reason why we must make greater and greater efforts to garner the committed and continuous support of that proportion of the electorate which actually shares our core beliefs:
* the greatest measure of individual freedom compatible with the freedom of others;
* a fairer distribution of income and wealth;
* concern for the poor and marginalised;
* enthusiasm for Europe;
* enjoying the diversity of a multicultural society;
* support for international law and institutions, especially the ECHR and UN;
* commitment to the preservation of civil liberties and the protection of human rights;
* determination to share some of our wealth to promote the development of the Third World;
* devolution of powers to the nations of Britain and the regions of England;
* refining our democratic processes, not least proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member consistences;
* industrial democracy and profit sharing;
* working for fair trade as well as free trade;
* and the use of the government's powers to maintain full employment, eliminate squalor, conquer ignorance, maintain health and remove want. (To those not steeped in our history, these are the Five Giants Beveridge set out to destroy.)
In the next four weeks households throughout the country will be flooded with Focus leaflets telling them that our Liberal Democrat councillors and candidates work hard "all the year round" and are "winning here." Great stuff, but we also need to tell them why, as well as caring for the quality of the pavements, we, at our core, are Liberal Democrats.