The myth and the reality
These are exciting times for the Left. George Galloway, the Robert Kilroy-Silk of anti-imperialism, fresh from his glorious election victory over pro-war Blairite MP Oona King in Bethnal Green, has crossed the pond to the US of A to take the war to the lickspittle Republicans...or so goes the tale.
Galloway said nothing in the Senate hearing that any halfway clued-up anti-war activist couldn't have said. He denied everything and accused the Americans of having invaded Iraq, which they can scarcely dodge out of. It just proves that people who live in glass houses - or the White House - shouldn't throw stones. But we're in a better position than some Republican senator to ask ourselves whether "Gorgeous" George is all he's cracked up to be.
So what’s he done wrong?
As a Labour MP he was, as he himself says, "not as Left-wing as you might think". He voted for tuition fees and for privatizing hospitals and, in fact, in his whole career only voted against the Blair government five times. (By contrast, fellow anti-war Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn has voted against Blair more than 200 times, and many others are not far behind).
Galloway denies knowingly taking money from the oil-for-food programme, but admits having received funds for his anti-sanctions "Mariam Appeal" from his close associate Fawaz Zureikat, who is a Baathist, a capitalist and altogether not a great guy.
He also admits previously having taken money from the government of Pakistan to publish a newspaper, "East", pushing their line on Kashmir. All in all, he looks more like an international mercenary than anyone the Left should be getting excited about.
Nonetheless, the bulk of the British self-described Marxist Left, led by the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) has practically fallen over itself in its enthusiasm for Galloway's latest venture, "Respect" (or "Respect - The Unity Coalition(George Galloway)” as it was originally named by the modest Galloway).
George insists he needs at least £150,000 a year to function as a politician, and to get that sort of money he needed to get elected to Parliament. His victory, and a couple of other good results, were hailed by the SWP as the long-awaited breakthrough for socialists.
Wasn’t his election a leap forward for the Left?
First of all, it needs to be said that Respect's programme wasn't particularly Left-wing. Galloway opposes women’s right to decide whether they want an abortion, and favours a quota system for immigrants - so Respect couldn't campaign too hard for the oppressed. As for "workers' representatives on a workers' wage", a central plank of the Left's electoral programme for years - well you can guess what happened to that. What was left could have been written by Charlie Kennedy if you got him pissed enough.
What's more, apart from two or three good results, Respect did on average no better than the Socialist Alliance, a previous attempt to unite the Left, had in 2001. And those exceptional results were achieved by campaigning to gain the support of "leaders" of the Muslim community, usually clergy and businessmen, ignoring young people and workers of Muslim background. Respect also failed to condemn anti-Semitic attacks which were made against Oona King by some of their supporters.
In Bethnal Green this type of campaigning was shamefully copycatted by Labour activists, who went to mainly white areas and told people to vote Labour if they didn't want the Bengalis in charge. So both sides are equally responsible for a new division of the community in that part of London, which has set back the cause of anti-racism.
Why can’t the Left form a party with mass support here, when it’s been possible in other countries?
This question has exercised minds for centuries. As much as 250 years ago, the great French jurist Montesquieu thought he had the answer: Britain is too cold and wet. He had learnt, he said, from observing sheep's tongues that when it gets cold the pores of living animals close up and the blood retreats from the extremities - which is why they don't have many political assassinations in Greenland. Then again, Montesquieu was pretty weird.
The real answer has to do with three factors.
First, historically Britain was the world's first capitalist state, having a half-complete bourgeois revolution against the King as early as the 1640s. This gave the new ruling class an unrivalled chance to consolidate itself and establish its institutions of power - like Parliament - as the "natural" ones.
But this doesn't really explain the crisis of the Left now, at the beginning of the 21st Century. For the reasons for that we must look at both the domination of the working-class movement by right-wing leaders - Blairite MPs and trade-union bureaucrats - and the disunity of the Left.
Often these two forces show how complimentary they are by working together. For example, when the public service unions decided to accept a few sops from the Blair government and call off the strikes on 23rd March - which would have been the biggest strike since 1926, and would have turned the election into a whole new ball game - the SWP and the Socialist Party supported them and voted to call off all strike action.
What’s the way forward then?
We need to revitalize the labour movement and the Left within it, and wage an uncompromising struggle against bosses, government and all those trade-union bureaucrats who want to capitulate and to do deals with bosses and government.
There is no substitute for the labour movement. Single-issue campaigns can win little sectional victories, but defeat is indivisible. If the labour movement had won in the 1980s we would be living in a very different and much better society now. The continued vitality of workers' struggle shows that the labour movement cannot be finally destroyed, and with our hard work and energy it can win.