A strange amalgam
In light of George Galloway’s strong showing in Batley and Spen, Paul Demarty asks if his new organisation has any kind of serious future
Last week, we considered the fortunes of George Galloway and his Workers Party of Britain, noting that they were by some estimates on course for a strong showing in Batley and Spen, perhaps capturing up to 6% of the vote.1
That turned out, of course, to be a radical underestimate. Their final tally of over 21% - to the horror of bourgeois media outlets who had basically portrayed Galloway’s Batley campaign as if were carried out at the point of Sturmabteilung guns - was a very comfortable third place (not enough for George, who has launched a legal challenge to the result). Labour’s narrow victory saved Kier Starmer’s bacon for now: even the most idiotic Labour leftist must at least have known that this was not a ‘normal’ mid-term by-election, there to scold the government and little else, but a difficult poll in a bizarre historical moment. But, for all the ‘Labour’s coming home’ triumphalism, Galloway’s strong showing demonstrates that leaking votes to the new-model ‘populist’ Tories is not Starmer’s only headache.
Exactly what weaknesses Galloway’s showing have exposed remain to be seen. For much of the bourgeois media, the accent seems to fall on the supposed ‘thuggery’ of the campaign - another sign of that great modern evil, ‘polarisation’. Further right, there are other concerns, let us say: the French right is obsessed with a fantastical amalgam it calls islamo-gauchisme - ‘Islamo-leftism’ - but if there is anyone to whom that label could plausibly apply, it is surely not any Left Bank intellectual, but Dundee’s most famous son. Galloway can talk a good social democratic game against Labour and the Conservatives, but he is also exceptionally sensitive to the particular concerns of Muslims, thanks to his vigorous anti-imperialism and support for Palestine (run-of-the-mill Muslims, and even Islamists, have one thing at least in common with the left: their being smeared as anti-Semites for sympathising with the Palestinians).
Galloway, more controversially, is willing to reject liberal social policies when it suits him and defends the prerogatives of faith schools when it comes to sex education. Galloway himself is professedly Roman Catholic (though rumours have circulated for years that he has privately converted to Islam, which he denies). Add in his party’s fanatical Brexitism, and one can interpret his success in the ‘post-liberal’ terms unfavourable to a supposedly out-of-touch cosmopolitan Labour Party.
An interesting article from Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani, recounting his visit to Batley and Spen, and extensive conversations with Galloway’s supporters and campaigners, leaves the impression of a real motley crew. Galloway’s backers include localist petty bourgeois types who want someone to fix the roads instead of diverting funds, as Kirklees council supposedly does, to Huddersfield; muftis; historic Labour/Tory swing voters; young campaigners of an ex-Corbynite mien.2 For Bastani - not less an opportunist in his own way than Galloway - this is all evidence of the opportunities missed by Starmer’s sterile Labour. For those of us old enough to remember Galloway’s first great third-party triumph - in Bethnal Green and Bow back in 2005 at the head of the Respect coalition - it is all very familiar. Galloway might not be able to fuse all these fragments into a cohesive whole, but he can at least stuff them into a sock and give a Labour candidate a good thwack every once in a while.
The question must arise, therefore, of whether this can ever be more than essentially a one-man show. The other elected representatives of Respect, with one or two exceptions, tended to simply be petty bourgeois localists; when the core political elements - to wit Galloway and his supporters, on one side, and the Socialist Workers Party, on the other - fell out, they melted away quickly. Can this alliance of Galloway’s with the rather spicier Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) prove more enduring?
Put another way, should someone decide to join the Workers Party of Britain, what exactly are they joining? We can quote the section of the website on the group’s structure in extenso:
The Workers Party has a National Members Council (NMC) that was elected at our Founding Congress in December 2019. This council is made up of 40-plus elected and coopted members and is our leadership body in between congresses. The council meets quarterly. The party congress elected a leader, deputy leader and general secretary, who are the backbone of our leadership team … The head office runs the day-to-day affairs of the party … National, regional and district secretaries are appointed by the NMC or head office ... The base organisations are local branches. To be a branch secretary a member must formally apply and be approved by the head office.3
Though there is also the caveat that “our party is in a period of growth and development, and as such many of our structures and branches are in the process of formation”, this is in fact a fairly well-formed structure, and reminds us - alas! - of the SWP. The SWP’s conference elects a central committee (equivalent to the ‘leadership team’ of the WPB) and a national committee (like the NMC). Crucially, both organisations appoint regional and district organisers centrally (the WPB even does the same for branch secretaries! SWP branches can at least elect their own local officers). The SWP provides ample evidence for how this works out in practice - a nearly immutable separation between thinkers and doers; a relationship between rank and file and leadership wholly on the model of the standing army.
That is hardly outside the tradition of the CPGB-ML, at least, whose inveterate Stalinophilia presumably extends to the characterisation of the party as the “general staff” of the revolution and so on. It also allows the opportunist leaders of the CPGB-ML (and, in the Respect days, the SWP) to suppress discomfort at the political compromises involved in bag-carrying for Galloway (See Lawrence Parker’s article in this issue for ample evidence of the contortions involved on the CPGB-ML’s part). It does so at a price, however, which is preventing any other serious force emerging that could give political direction to the WPB beyond the opportunist deal at the heart of it.
What we have then is a group with the internal structure of a bureaucratic sect and a political basis of … well, now. The group’s website presents a programme of intensely statist, national-autarkic ‘socialism’. “Free-market fundamentalism” is “castrating our society”, which needs
the state to guide the economic life of the country in such a way as to promote work, to respect the dignity of labour, and to serve the working people. All adults have a duty to work in a useful fashion, according to their talents and abilities, and society has an equal duty to ensure that useful employment is available to all - part-time or full-time, according to the domestic, health and life constraints of the worker.4
The WPB “positively embraces Britain’s withdrawal from the EU”; it holds that “under a socialist system, the control of our borders, both physical and financial, will be a guarantee not only of the rights of our workers … but will restrict the ability of capital to pack up and leave for greener pastures.” It defends its great forefathers, “all those countries that have attempted to break free of imperialist domination and build a different kind of world”, including “the USSR, Cuba, China, etc”. We will not do more than restate the truth that such national-autarkic ‘socialism’ is barely plausible at the best of times, never mind in a country - ahem - ‘castrated’ by financialisation and extensively dependent on the importation of food.
None of this, to be sure, seems to have been leaping unbidden from the lips of the good campaigners of Batley and Spen. But, when the WPB programme “declare[s] that obsession with identity politics, including sexual politics, divides the working class”, it at least authorises silence on Galloway’s open social conservatism (which is hardly unique even today among left leaders globally: Galloway is a painfully woke liberal, compared to Peru’s probable next president, Pedro Castillo), as well as providing a pretext for dismissing criticism of ‘actually-existing socialist’ countries on grounds of illiberal social policies.
The trouble with this approach is a little different to the ‘raw’ Stalinism discussed above: it simply renders us mute on questions that do, in fact, exercise people at large in society. Very well, someone on the doorstep might ask, you do not think these questions should divide us, but what do you believe? To which comes the reply: we are “totally opposed to discrimination on grounds of race, sex or sexual proclivity”. This must be unsatisfactory to progressives and reactionaries alike: the latter learn that, after all, the WPB is just another bunch of woke leftie snowflakes, and the liberals can hardly be satisfied with a “total” opposition that simply mutes itself when it is inconvenient.
We must evaluate this whole package on its own terms: that is, as an alternative to building a mass democratic centralist Communist Party and a strategic intervention in the Labour Party - something the CPGB-ML and its predecessors have always abjured; and a course denied to Galloway by default, as someone expelled from Labour under Blair and not readmitted under Corbyn. Yet what is the problem that apparently renders Starmer useless (and, of course, did for Corbyn in 2019)? That the coalition of those Labour voters in the great cities and those in the industrial and post-industrial towns (overwhelmingly working class, from the Marxist point of view, on both sides, despite rightwing caricatures of middle-class liberal types) is falling apart. It seems impossible to rebuild either on the basis of traditional left Labourism (Corbyn) or contemporary right Labourism (Starmer). A mixture of internet-edgelord ultra-Stalinism and quasi-leftist woke-baiting is hardly likely to do better.
At least the Labour Party has an historic importance as an institution of working class political action - an institution where such action is diverted into bourgeois politics, infected with nationalism and countless other maladies. But it is one with considerable breadth and interpenetration with the trade union movement, one which is possible to transform into a space for strategic questions to be fought out and class power to incubate. Nothing less than a revolution in the Labour Party is needed to render it useful to humanity in our corner of the world; but the benefits such a revolution would yield make it worthwhile to try.
The Workers Party of Britain, on the other hand, solves none of the problems of past Galloway vehicles, while at the same time introducing a few new ones.
‘George’s modest flutter’, July 1: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1354/georges-modest-flutter.↩︎