Many on the left have seized on George Galloway's startling by-election victory in Bradford West (29 March) as proof that the recently-slowing trickle of left-of-Labour electioneering can now become a surge.
Socialist Worker (14 April) suggested: “The Galloway effect could now ripple across the country. Imagine if on 3 May Respect won council seats in Bradford while elsewhere radical left candidates such as Michael Lavalette [SWP] and Dave Nellist [Socialist Party] won their seats. This would provide a platform for the left as whole to regroup and create a serious left of Labour alternative”.
The first difficulty with this scenario is that the SWP (and the Socialist Party) had no part in the “Galloway effect” — they did not even have articles in their papers backing him before polling day — and on all evidence Galloway wants nothing to do with SWP and SP.
Galloway's victory certainly shows the fragility of Labour's base, even at a time when Labour now leads the Tories in the polls by 10%, and the widespread working-class resentment at Ed Miliband's feebleness.
But many left group candidates have discovered that resentment and disillusion do not necessarily rally voters to them. There has been a general trend since about 2005 for left-of-Labour election scores to shrink, and even at times when Labour was in government and extremely unpopular. Galloway himself failed electorally in 2011 in Glasgow, winning only 3.3%.
AWL was not active on the ground in Bradford, any more than SWP or SP were, and we do not know exactly how he pulled off his victory. Helen Pidd of the Guardian, who was the only national newspaper journalist to report the by-election on the spot, estimated:
“Those who voted for Galloway... were either a first-time voter or a disaffected Labourite, and all wanted to congratulate him on his robust stance against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many said they watched him on Press TV, the English language Iranian-controlled channel...” Many were aggrieved by the, so to speak, sub-communalism of the local Labour Party, controlled by “a small number of Pakistanis who came from Mirpur, a small town in Kashmir, who had carved up the most important Labour party positions between them over the years”. The Labour candidate, an unimpressive lawyer, was a Mirpuri.
Galloway went for Muslim votes, but his victory cannot be explained exclusively by that. “‘All praise to Allah!’ he yelled [at his victory rally, so the sympathetic Helen Pidd reports] to jubilant cries of ‘Allah Allah!’ And on it went. 'Long live Iraq! Long live Palestine!'” But his main election leaflet promoted him as the “real Labour” candidate, opposing NHS cuts and tuition fees.
The going-over to Galloway of Labour's election agent in Bradford may have been important. It has to be doubtful whether the “Bradford effect” is transferable — even by Galloway himself, let alone by groups like the SWP and SP, who have been openly disgusted with him in recent years and only now swivel round to praise him.
In the May local elections the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC: an operation run by the SP with some activists from the RMT union and some minor involvement from the SWP) is running 115 candidates.
TUSC is also running for the “list” part of the Greater London Assembly election (not in the “constituency” part or the mayoral contest) and for mayor of Liverpool. In Coventry, where in the past it has had councillors, SP is running as “Socialist Alternative”, not TUSC.
Galloway's Respect party, which before Bradford had been on the verge of shutting down, with almost all its council seats lost, has been given a new boost, and will run a slate in Bradford's council election.
TUSC's pitch for the London poll — a woodenly-expressed “anti-cuts” declaration and identification with “trade unions”, with no positive content of socialism or working-class political representation beyond the bare word “socialist” — seems unlikely to catch on in the way that the practised “real Labour” demagogy of the well-known Galloway did in Bradford. And what will be achieved if it does catch on, other than obvious benefits for the SP? There is no channel from TUSC successes, if they should happen, to a revitalisation of the labour movement or the left.
But we shall see.
• Why didn't Solidarity welcome George Galloway's victory? He has a long history, since the 1990s, of promoting himself on the back of political operations paid for by despotic elites (Pakistan, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia). His campaigning over Iraq was heavily financed by money funnelled to it through a colleague, Fawaz Zureikat, who in turn got the cash from Saddam Hussein. Voters in Bradford will not have known this shady history, or may have known it but reckoned (thinking all politicians are shady anyway) that it wasn't decisive.