The landslide victory of George Galloway in Bradford West has been hailed by many on the left as a “victory” for our side.
Tony Mulhearn of the Socialist Party — and Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate for mayor of Liverpool — writes “I applaud George Galloway's victory”. Anindya Bhattacharyya writes on the Socialist Worker website that “his win is a boost for the left in Britain”.
Meanwhile the Labour Party leadership has thrown itself into a fake “soul searching” exercise, promising to reflect on the defeat and learn the lessons. Such a tactic dodges the need for real accountability, but will it generate positive reassessments?
Not if Yvette Coopers' comments are anything to go by. When interviewed by Andrew Marr on the BBC after Galloway's victory, Cooper announced Labour's major theme for upcoming local elections: “We're going to be campaigning on crime and anti-social behaviour because that is the sort of thing people are very concerned about in streets and communities across the country.”
No serious assessment there then!
So how did Galloway manage to turn a 5000 majority for Labour into a 10000 majority for himself in the space of just three weeks? One argument is that he out-did Labour's communalist approach.
We know from previous experience that Galloway and Respect run communal campaigns, cynically harnessing the power and prestige of local imams and mosques to mobilise support. We know that Galloway and his campaigns push aside class approachs to politics and focus on his record as a “fighter for Muslims”. We already know that during the Bradford West campaign, Galloway supporters distributed a letter which contains the following:
“God KNOWS who is a Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not. Instinctively, so do you. Let me point out to all the Muslim brothers and sisters what I stand for:
I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if you believe the other candidate in this election can say that truthfully.
I, George Galloway, have fought for the Muslims at home and abroad, all my life. And paid a price for it. I believe the other candidate in this election cannot say so truthfully”
So a determined communalist slant from the Galloway camp definitely played a part in the victory. However, Labour's candidate, Imran Hussein, is a Muslim of Pakistani heritage and for the past five elections Bradford West has returned a Sikh man to Westminster. So while we should criticise Galloway's antics and note that communalism played a role, let's not paint a complex picture in just one shade as some right-wing critics have done.
The election in Bradford West was a by-election and in such circumstances, strange voting patterns can occur. By some accounts, although Galloway had the support of Labour's former election agent and, one assumes, a number of former Labour activists, his campaign team was not substantial. It's doubtful if the campaign managed to visit many houses in the constituency and win an argument on the doorstep.
It is claimed that the Respect campaign focussed on mobilising people who wouldn't have otherwise voted – the young, students etc... Even then, can such a swing be explained by such tactics?
The facts of the current political situation must have fed into Galloway's victory. These are:
• a Tory government determinedly seeing through an austerity campaign;
• a massively unpopular traditional "third party", the Liberal Democrats, who look on the brink of electoral collapse;
• a Labour Party that seems to have learned nothing from the experience of Blairism and New Labour. Galloway's "headline" campaign message – against war and cuts – will have chimed with a great many people.
So the victory for Galloway and Respect in Bradford is a victory for the left? Not at all.
The factors leading to Galloway's victory are a complex mix of communalism, anti-government sentiment, the "celebrity" status of the candidate and the political ineptitude of Labour. The overriding feature of Galloway's victory is the fact that Galloway has been returned to national politics and the fact that many on the left have fallen behind "Galloway the personality". This is most definitely a bad thing.
In parliament, Galloway never acted as a tribune of the working class, trade unionism and socialist ideas. He is best remembered for using the back-benches as a platform to promote himself and his allegedly anti-imperialist credentials. For Galloway, anti-imperialism amounts to siding with Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi people, siding with the Iranian regime against the Iranian people and lauding the murderer Assad for being the “last Arab leader”. Galloway even informed the people of Syria that they are a “free people”! The story of Galloway's anti-imperialism is a book-length catalogue of demagogic lovemaking to some of the foulest characters on the planet.
The result in Bradford West will no doubt breathe new life into the idea that there is a short-cut to dealing with the political problems our movement faces. It will boost the idea in unions and among leftists to back initiatives like TUSC and characters like Galloway. And that we do not need to organise for a fight inside Labour against the remnants of Blair and New Labour.
Such false conclusions will generate a false political outlook for our class and our movement. The left – even those who've been at the receiving end of Galloway's politics in the recent past – have learned nothing because they seem to care nothing for consistent working class politics. We say: learn the lessons, get a grip on reality, call Galloway out for what he is and build a serious working class politics.
We shouldn't be too hasty - "No serious assessment there then!" - to attempt to judge the effect Galloway's victory on the Labour Party. While I appreciate that his election is in many ways not a positive result for the left, given his track record and position on several fundamental issues, the event itself does put pressure on the Labour leadership, albeit in the form of longer-term strategy. Realistically Yvette Cooper was never going to reposition her party live on a talk show, but that does not mean to say that Galloway's election could not comprise another nail in the coffin of New Labour, and the taking for granted of traditional Labour voting constituencies.
Galloway's victory, as such, is perhaps not something to be entirely, lamented; in retrospect it may prove to have been a useful pressure point from which we must encourage the Labour Party to reassert itself at the grassroots.