Who's afraid of George Galloway?
The open letter urging no vote for the Coalition Against Cuts list was understandable, but badly wrong, writes James Turley
George Galloway’s run for the Scottish parliament, in the event, ended in failure. The vote for his Respect/Coalition Against Cuts list in Glasgow, bulked up by current and recent members of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party Scotland, was respectable compared to non-Labour left showings either side of the border in the last few years (although obviously not even close to the electoral success of the Scottish Socialist Party at its height).
Yet what was abundantly clear was that the Galloway/SWP/SPS list was the only remotely serious candidacy the non-Labour left was able to muster in Scotland. The SSP, since the acrimonious split with Tommy Sheridan a few years ago, has been a truly pitiful sight. Now, it is regularly outstripped in the polls by Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, which has not existed in any real sense for close to a decade. This year was no exception.
It is, in a sense, no surprise. While the SSP still has activists, it has even less reason to exist than the SLP rump. Its increasingly tailist left-nationalist politics have effectively wiped out what distance there was between the SSP and the left wing of the Scottish National Party. As for the Sheridan splinter group, Solidarity, its main activist bases are the two groups that backed up Galloway’s list - and they certainly did better under the latter’s tutelage than Sheridan’s.
In the Glasgow list poll, then, there was only one substantial leftwing option on offer - the one that united the two largest British left-of-Labour groups, with noted publicity-hound Galloway at the top. The comrades satisfied our fundamental conditions for support in this election - workers’ movement candidates opposed to all cuts. As a result, we in the Communist Party of Great Britain decided to recommend a vote for Galloway, despite our numerous criticisms of this deeply flawed individual. There cannot be many on the left, indeed, who expected us to do anything else - we have called for critical Galloway votes in various elections since the Respect period, including when he ran successfully against the pro-war Blairite, Oona King, in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005.
Last week, our paper carried an open letter from several comrades urging the left to withhold its support from Galloway. The list of names includes supporters of Hands Off the People of Iran and Communist Students, two organisations set up, in part or in whole, on our initiative. It is also the case that a few CPGB members have expressed support for the letter internally, though they refrained from signing it in recognition of the fact that we were now engaged in an agreed action - to give critical support to all working class anti-cuts candidates.
The reasons given by the comrades for not doing so in the case of Galloway are understandable and, moreover, amount for the most part to correct criticisms of him, which it was necessary to raise in the election period (and, indeed, we repeatedly raise in one form or another in the course of our activity). The comrades focus overwhelmingly on the matter of Iran, perhaps unsurprisingly, giving us a rundown of Galloway’s disgracefully obsequious courtship of the Islamic regime. As a primer on his appalling record on this score, the open letter serves pretty well.
The comrades also note Galloway’s reactionary positions on abortion, and his habit of making himself scarce when parliament debated issues (women’s rights, gay rights) which might divide the left and Islamist elements of his ‘constituency’. They are on dodgier ground when they simply complain that he did not turn up to parliament very much at all; this phases into the faux-grassroots (‘astroturf’, as they say in America) campaigns against Galloway got up by his local constituency Labour Party during his reign in Bethnal Green. Cringe-inducing Celebrity big brother appearance aside, Galloway is a professional politician, and uses his various media platforms to espouse his politics - however horrible they may be in places.
Likewise the complaint about his ‘egomania’; it is certainly true as far as it goes, but is this really a reason to deny support to an individual? Would this prevent people from supporting, say, Tommy Sheridan, who is far from short on narcissism himself?
Of course, Galloway tends to make problems for himself on this score. It is worth watching his faintly embarrassing election video: His pitch consists mostly of explaining how much better he is than the run-of-the-mill MSP, some of whom cannot even speak in “the proper grammar and syntax”. The people of Glasgow “sorely need” a well-spoken champion, because some of the roads in the town “look like they’ve been bombed by the RAF, confusing the Gorbals with Libya”. However, nowhere does he mention that he is part of a slate.
So why on earth would we recommend a vote for this dubious character? First of all - whatever the man himself may think about the matter, this election was not all about George Galloway. It took place in the context of an enormous government assault on all our living conditions. The cuts agenda dominated the run-up to the May elections, however much consternation there was about the alternative vote referendum. It is responsible for the broad outline of the results - substantial Labour gains in the heartlands (Scotland excepted); a calamitous showing for the Liberal Democrats.
The CPGB recognised this - so our intervention was about drawing a class line on the cuts issue. As noted, the formulation we ended up with was: vote for (a) candidates of the workers’ movement who (b) oppose, and (at least say they) will vote against, all cuts to public services. We also argued that voters should prefer Labour candidates who meet the conditions to non-Labour, though this is irrelevant in the Galloway case.
Galloway meets the conditions. He is a product of the labour movement; and, while part of his campaigning is invariably redirected through local mosques and patronage networks, he remains reliant on support from willing left groups (in this case, the SWP and SPS). He says he will oppose and vote against all cuts. Therefore, in the absence of quite exceptional reasons not to do so, the CPGB recommended a vote for the CAC list.
The reasons offered by the comrades are not exceptional. They are mundane, and true to one extent or another of innumerable left candidates. The left of the labour bureaucracy, for a start, is conditioned by decades of Stalinist hegemony; thus one can find all manner of Labour left or Morning Star-type candidates with extremely dodgy records on supporting dictatorial regimes abroad. The rump of the Workers Revolutionary Party can sometimes be spotted running an electoral campaign - and sometimes on a march chanting “Victory to Gaddafi!” Is that level of apology really preferable to Galloway’s softness on Iran?
If not, then how long is our list of conditions going to end up? Let us step back for a minute: by pitching a ‘line’ on the elections, the CPGB makes propaganda to the left about appropriate election policy. At the end of the day, this is propaganda in favour of an appropriate agitational line that would allow us to make a real, principled impact on sections of the masses, were the vanguard united. The logic of making sure all votes are ‘squeaky clean’ is not only abstentionist, but contrary to the whole point of interventions around elections (short of running communist candidates) in the first place.
Say Galloway was standing for election in Tehran - well, in that case, his support for state repression by the Islamic Republic would certainly rule him out! This is an irrelevance, however; Galloway does not get to dispatch units of bassiji militias to quell Iranian demonstrations from Holyrood. As a British politician, he does, however, position himself against imperialist sanctions and war on Iran. The comrades clearly make a serious political error by not even mentioning the imperialist threat at any point in their letter. It may be objected that a statement against voting for Galloway is not a place to indicate a position on which he is (broadly) principled; but the problem is that the question of the Iranian regime cannot be separated from the question of imperialism without equivocating on one or the other.
Our first duty as communists is to oppose the imperialist machinations of our own state. If we were to make Iran an election issue in Britain, it would be by making opposition to war and sanctions a condition; and again we would have to vote Galloway, while making clear that his persistent whitewashing of the regime ultimately undermines the anti-war struggle he no doubt sincerely supports. By posing the question in this way, the open letter merges into the social-imperialist arguments of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. It matches up so well, in fact, that the AWL website saw fit to republish the letter in toto, not surprisingly without any criticism.
Communists do not advocate critical support for dubious individuals out of sheer appreciation of the artistry of a good balancing act. We do so, in the first instance, because a given political conjuncture imposes its own priorities on our propaganda and agitation, and we must find ways of highlighting those priorities without blunting our independent line of attack.
More generally, however, critical support is an attack on the whole style of politics advocated by Galloway and - in the last instance - most of the far left. Our aim is to win the masses to active partisanship in the working class struggle for socialism. Galloway wants passive support from enough of the masses to pursue his own interests. To point out that even the ‘best’ candidates available are woefully inadequate is itself a challenge to do more than vote. In arguing for critical support, we attack both serenely useless abstentionism, on the one hand, and passive acceptance of whatever turns up on a ballot paper, on the other - we argue, that is, for a critical mindset proper to Marxism and conducive to communist activity.
- ‘No vote for Galloway’, May 5.