George’s modest flutter
The return of the British left’s most eccentric celebrity has provided an interesting twist - but can he succeed? Paul Demarty looks at the Batley and Spen by-election
The Batley and Spen by-election has brought out the usual array of oddball candidates.
The Monster Raving Loony Party’s is present and correct; so is Anne Marie Waters of For Britain - the counter-jihadist splinter from the UK Independence Party, which is notable for enjoying the support of both Tommy Robinson and Morrissey from The Smiths. Far and away in front of such candidates, in the only poll to have been conducted in the constituency, is an old friend of ours - ‘gorgeous’ George Galloway, standing for the first time under the flag of the party he now leads, the Workers Party of Britain.
The WPB, according to the Daily Mail/Survation poll, is on course to pick up 6% of the vote, comfortably retaining Galloway’s deposit and pushing the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. More importantly, the Tories lead Labour by exactly 6 points. Though a general miasma of impending doom shrouds Labour’s candidate, the inconsequential Kim Leadbeater, it would be a special headache for Kier Starmer if Galloway were to rob her of the seat occupied by her sister, Jo Cox, until the latter’s brutal murder by a far-rightist lunatic.
We shall take a closer look at the problems posed for Labour in a moment, but it seems worthwhile to reintroduce Galloway and his Workers Party to readers. Galloway is a man out of time: almost the last relic of a certain cold war ‘type’ - the fellow-travelling Stalino-Labourite. After the end of the cold war, although he described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the biggest disaster of his political life, the then Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin was tolerated, for a time, as an eccentric who was good at keeping people in line. But his vigorous anti-imperialism put him on a collision course with Tony Blair following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. After he openly called for soldiers to disobey orders, he was expelled from Labour.
The Socialist Workers Party, flush with the success of the mass anti-war demonstrations, seized the opportunity to conclude an alliance with Galloway, along with ‘Muslim activists’ who were originally supposed to include the Muslim Association of Britain (the British affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood), but before long consisted of little more than a few petty bourgeois opportunists in especially Bengali and Pakistani neighbourhoods of the cities. This was Respect; its own greatest achievement was electing Galloway as an MP in Bethnal Green and Bow, humiliating the vile, warmongering Blairite, Oona King, in 2005.
This motley alliance was not to last, however. The SWP - which had gleefully abandoned plank after plank of its politics to make the thing work - did not reap any rewards from the endeavour, and opportunistically flounced out in 2007. Respect limped on without them, and scored one more great victory, electing Galloway again (he had been defeated in 2010) - this time in a Bradford by-election. That was not to last either, and in 2015 he was defeated, after having apparently alienated all of his staff.
The Galloway playbook has a particular shape to it. He is, it should be said first of all, a talented politician in many respects. He does not always come across well in a video setting, but as a stump speaker he has few equals in his generation. (It is worth remembering that, for all Nigel Farage’s great national profile, he has never won a first-past-the-post parliamentary election on his small-party tickets, as opposed to George’s two.) His personal charisma can go a long way to upsetting the lazy incumbent Labour establishment.
The other part is more a matter of ‘low’ politics. He has gotten very good at ingratiating himself with local Islamic milieux and mosques. He can very rapidly bootstrap a campaigning apparatus on the basis of his open Islamophilia, as well as his strong record of opposition to wars in the Middle East and support for Palestine.
Song and dance
Perhaps here is the point to discuss the ‘controversies’ around the Batley and Spen campaign. Leadbeater made a big song and dance about being ‘chased’ down the road by an ‘aggressive’ man who clearly opposed gay-friendly teaching in schools and wanted her to know about it. The campaign insinuated this man was a Galloway supporter, with no evidence (he later turned out to be a chap from Birmingham, where a similar controversy raged between conservative religious types and local schools a few years ago). Leadbeater laughably tried to link the perfectly acceptable practice of heckling politicians (she will get a lot of that in parliament!) to the death of her sainted sister - the difference between ‘asking a question’ and ‘repeatedly stabbing and shooting someone’ is apparently beyond her innocent mind.
Somewhat more serious is the subsequent incident where Labour canvassers were accosted by a few Asian youths and pelted with eggs. We would not consider egging as protected political speech (although who amongst us has not gotten carried away on Halloween once or twice … ?), unlike the homophobic heckler. Yet the same insinuations of implied fatal violence (“I was terrified they were going to pull out a knife”, one man told The Guardian) and blaming of Galloway was repeated. Galloway, needless to say, denies any involvement.
What is peculiar is how little has been made of his ticket: the Workers Party. We have written about this peculiar organisation before,1 but the key takeaway is that - with a moment’s investigation - it becomes clear that the group consists of Galloway, on the one hand, and the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) on the other. The CPGB-ML is a sect of ultra-Stalinist true believers, defenders of the Moscow trials and the conjecture that Trotsky was a western intelligence asset, who was, in any case, murdered by a disaffected follower - and so on. The alliance with Galloway was founded on their common Brexitism, to the point that both backed Farage’s Brexit Party at times. It seems baffling that nobody has bothered to ask George what he makes of the opinions of his deputy leader, Joti Brar, on the great purges.
Instead there has been some lukewarm ‘Terf wars’ controversy - Galloway seems to take the trans-exclusionary radical feminist line on keeping ‘women’s only’ spaces and services limited to natal females. This is of a part with his opportunistic Catholicism (it is rather useful, when getting imams on board, to be able to tell them what the Labour candidate will not - that abortion is murder and faith groups should be able to teach their own morals in their schools …). We do not expect this to make much difference to the outcome, partly because Galloway has already demonstrated that he is cancellation-proof, and partly because the election is in West Yorkshire, not Shoreditch, and the usual run of liberal shibboleths do not necessarily cast the same pallor of death in a constituency that voted heavily for Brexit in 2016.
Whether or not the WPB does as well as the Survation poll suggests, you, the reader, will know. I can only guess, but from where and when I write, the signs are not good for Labour. Already facing a chauvinist backlash all along its ‘red wall’, it now has - for the first time in the Starmer era - a real risk of an election-moving showing for forces to its left. It turns out that you cannot just purge and smear people without consequences: those you take for granted - such as Muslim voters looking for a little shelter from relentless state harassment - are apt to be swept off their feet by somebody who does not concoct relentless accusations of anti-Semitism against you.
All Labour seems to have in reserve is the gimmick of putting up Saint Jo’s sister as a candidate (the lesson seems to be that the Cox cult is rather more intense among the smelling-salts brigade of Westminster than on her old patch), and then empty accusations of ‘bullying’ with distinct racial-religious overtones. But if Islam-panic is your bag, why would you vote for a wet, whining nonentity, when you could have your choice of a Tory or a whole rainbow of far-right cranks further down the ballot paper? Never mind the fact that, at the same time as Islam-baiting Galloway’s campaign, Leadbeater’s supporters distributed leaflets in Muslim areas highlighting Boris Johnson’s chumminess with Narendra Modi, thus alienating those hailing from the rest of the subcontinent.
Like so much of the present state of Labour, it all just does not add up to anything. The party lurches from one asinine gimmick to the next, incurring all the costs and reaping none of the rewards. The commentariat issues the usual advice about messaging and not losing touch with ‘ordinary people’, but no pollsters’ tweaks will resolve the issue that Labour is divided quite as acrimoniously as it ever was under Jeremy Corbyn and, by all appearances, nothing short of dissolving the party and electing another will do to return it to the full and stable control of the right. Until then, Galloway can cause merry mayhem on the left flank and in Muslim/south Asian communitarian circles; and the Tories can safely assume that Labour’s ‘patriotic’ dress-up routines will meet the derision they deserve on the doorstep.
It is precisely because Starmerism has not succeeded in its aims - and may therefore be forced into more dramatic methods to achieve them - that the Galloway/WPB effort is somewhat premature. Galloway can hardly be blamed for it - it was the Corbyn leadership that was too cowardly to readmit him to membership. So long as there is any fight to be had in the Labour Party, attempts to replace it with ‘left’ clones (never mind Brexit-bonkers variants, staffed by Stalin-worshippers) are worse than useless.
‘George’s marvellous medicine’, February 13 2020: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1286/georges-marvellous-medicine.↩︎