We Need to Talk About George

I’m concerned about the way things seem to be moving amongst the radical left in the wake of George Galloway’s sweeping victory in the Bradford West by-election. Let me explain.

I should point out, first of all, that I very much welcome Galloway’s victory. Whatever our criticisms of Galloway, his politics and his campaign strategy, it’s clear that his success in Bradford West – and, further, the thumping majority he won (polling more votes than all the other candidates put together) – is probably a game changing development in British politics. It simultaneously demonstrates the existence of, and has helped to further open up, a viable space significantly to the left of the Labour Party in mainstream British politics.

Several key factors seem to have fed into the result – some of them local to Bradford and some of them developments at a more nationally and internationally generalisable level. Not the least of these factors, however, is the impact on voters of economic hardship stemming from the crisis (which is a structural crisis of capitalism) and the Coalition’s austerity programme and, moreover,  disillusionment amongst Labour’s traditional supporters in relation to Labour’s inability/unwillingness to offer a meaningful alternative. The latter, in turn, reflects and is bound up with the slow, long-term decline of social democracy – a decline which has largely been determined by the ways in which global capitalism has evolved over the past forty or so years. This has been a long time coming. I don’t want to get too carried away here – I’m not suggesting that we’re about to witness a series of electoral victories for left of Labour parties and coalitions and the final disintegration of ‘Labourism’. But what makes this result different is that – unlike Galloway’s 2005 election win in Bethnal Green and Bow – Respect’s victory in Bradford West appears to have been driven (at least in part) by deeper, longer term and more structural developments than those which mobilised support around Galloway in the immediate wake of the Iraq war (this support pretty quickly dissipated as the Iraq occupation wound down -the depressing but predictable faction fighting within Respect, which soon spilled over into a faction fight within the SWP, almost certainly reflected deep demoralisation and disorientation as ‘anti-war’ feeling and mobilisation dropped off across the country).

Certainly, much of the left appears to believe that Bradford West is a game changer. There has been quite a bit of talk in some of the usual places online where the left congregate  about the possibility of some sort of reorganisation of forces in order to capitalise on this shift in the political situation. It’s all been rather vague so far of course – naturally so, only a couple of days after the election victory – but there is certainly a sense that something is, or might soon be, afoot.  My guess is that people are beginning to put out feelers in relation to the formation of a new political coalition. This is all well and good. It’s about time. But I’m worried that we haven’t learned important lessons from the last time this happened and that the same mistakes will be made again. I’m worried, in particular, about George Galloway and the sort of politics he represents. I also think that we’re in a distinctly different political conjucture compared with the one we were in, in 2004ish when Respect was first formed – I don’t think that a Respect Coalition mk 2 (which I fear is what things are heading towards) is appropriate.

Let me set out my reasoning. Many, many people on the left have, at best, deeply ambivalent feelings towards Galloway. Most simply don’t trust him – me included. This is not the best basis for building a broad coalition. I’m not talking about the usual sectarian or purist suspects here or Galloway’s various critics on the so-called ‘decent left’ (remember them?). Beyond the routine distortions and mud slinging put out by the Nick Cohens and Harry’s Places, however, there are still many reasons to be wary of Galloway and I’d guess that the majority of the left certainly is, at the very least, wary of him. Why is this? The man’s rampant ego-mania is one reason. I can’t be the only one who can’t watch him speak without cringing at his constant boasts and bragging. It puts people off. A lot of people, who might otherwise support a broad left of labour coalition, think, to put it frankly, that he’s a bit of a tit. This is not good.

More importantly, there’s also something sleazy about his attitude to women – his recent appearance on This Week in which he repeatedly made creepy comments about Cristina Kirchner, President of Argentina (a rough summary – ‘Phwoar! I’d give her one! Soon sort out the Falklands – know what I mean lads? Hur hur.’), reinforced this for me. There’s a certain tinge of chauvinism to his politics in other ways too – he keeps banging on about ‘treachery’ and ‘treason’ for example when he lambasts New Labour (watch clips of his victory speech). There’s always been a touch too much of the One Nation patriotism and nationalism about Galloway’s particular brand of leftism. You might think that’s a small thing  -I think it’s very important. It’s rooted in the essentially Stalinist nature of Galloway’s politics – as is Galloway’s form of ‘anti-imperialism’, which is to side with tyrants like Assad and Gaddafi even when they are facing, and brutally suppressing, genuine popular uprisings and revolutions. For the most part, the radical left has been pretty good on these uprisings, coming down unambiguously on the side of the revolutionaries – even as they oppose foreign intervention. With Galloway as a leading light in a left of Labour coalition again, we’d have someone as a figurehead who supports Assad as his army shoots down demonstrators and as his secret police busily arrest,  torture and murder those struggling for democracy – there couldn’t be a worse time.

There’s also, of course, the matter of Galloway’s and Respect’s orientation in relation to ‘the Muslim community’ (sorry can’t think of a better term). One of the major criticisms of Respect both now and in the past was that it deliberately and cynically ‘targeted’ Muslim areas and cultivated ‘Muslim votes’ – leading its critics to accuse of it ‘communalism’ and so on. Clearly the picture is complicated here – as Galloway’s supporters rightly point out, there’s no way that he could have won the number of votes he did without appealing to other sections of  Bradford West’s population. But the idea that Respect does not deliberately choose to focus its campaigns in areas with large Muslim populations is clearly bullshit. The denial is laughable. Why else would Bradford have been chosen? This is problematic for a party which is seeking to present itself as a broad based left of Labour coalition. I  have to say that I’m highly uncomfortable with some of the details of Galloway’s campaign that have been reported in the media – the election leaflet, for example, in which Galloway apparently trumpets his teetotalism and in which he writes:  “God KNOWS who is a Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not.” What on earth is going on here? I find the ways in which Galloway’s supporters attempt to explain away and contextualise things like this pretty unconvincing – not least because there always seems to be so much to explain away when it comes to Galloway. Why, exactly, do his supporters have to spend so much of their time saying ‘Oh well you see, when he said X, he didn’t actually mean what you’re saying you think he meant – what he actually meant was something else’? It’s a little suspicious.

The problem, essentially, is that Galloway doesn’t simply offer a principled defence of Muslims from racism, discrimination and so on and seek to win Muslims equally amongst other sections of society to a progressive, left-social democratic political agenda – he concentrates on winning Muslim votes, seeking to ‘out-Muslim’ other candidates in the process. Respect seeks to present itself to Muslim communities as the party for Muslims – not primarily as a left-wing, anti-racist party with Muslims, amongst others, in it. This is always how Respect has operated in practice, whatever the protestations of its leading members and however they seek to explain it away. Whatever your views on the political principles at play here, strategically it’s a very poor approach. If it’s designed to attract a particular community above all others, it’s probably not going to lead to success in constituencies without a high number of Muslim voters.

We come now to the rather delicate matter of Galloway’s relationship with Islamism. Respect – and indeed much of the wider left – is regularly accused of being ‘soft’ on Islamic fundamentalism or even of making common cause with it. Andrew Rawnsley, for example, in today’s Guardian writes of Galloway’s political  ‘fusion of Marxism and Islamism’. Much of this is mud-slinging. But the fact is that Galloway and his supporters often act in such a way as to ensure that some of the mud sticks. There’s a distinction, of course, between fighting racist Islamophobia on the one hand and being uncritical of Islamism on the other. Far too often in recent years much of the Left have blurred this line, becoming much too uncritical of Islamism – as Terry Eagleton (a fierce critic of Islamophobia) somewhere points out (Holy Terror, I think). Galloway’s politics, for me, epitomise this processes of blurring and line crossing.

To some extent, the relaxation of critical thinking in relation to Islamism and the oppressive, conservative practices often bound up with it, was determined by the particular political exigencies the left faced at the height of the War on Terror where a major priority was to resist the demonisation of Muslim communities and to build relations of solidarity with them.  This also shaped, of course, the strategy of seeking to appeal to Muslim voters above all others. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this strategy at that time, it seems to me that we just don’t live in the same political conjuncture anymore. The political terrain has completely changed. From 2003-2007-ish this terrain was shaped by the War on Terror and the Left’s priority was to resist the war drive – this shaped in turn, amongst other things, the kinds of alliances that were built and the terms on which those alliances were built. But the War on Terror is, more or less, over. The major focus of political mobilisation is now to resist austerity and to build a movement to fight the cuts – this is a different sort of movement than the anti-war movement and it requires different forms of mobilisation and new forms of alliance. The Respect model is no longer valid, if it ever was.

But there’s also been another major terrain reshaping event recently other than the economic crisis and austerity drive – the Arab Spring. The revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East have fundamentally changed the international political situation in many ways – not least in that they have put the notion of ‘revolution’ back on the agenda after many years in which the concept had seemed to many outmoded and perhaps even rather quaint. They’ve also shown up, as I suggested above, the bankruptcy of the crude anti-imperialism which sides with regimes such as Assad’s even as hundreds of thousands of Syrians rise against it. Further, the Libyan uprising led to some pretty interesting innovations in much more sophisticated forms of anti-imperialist thinking. Socialists were forced to rethink their approach somewhat in order to deal with the awkward problem of Western intervention in support of a popular uprising against Gaddafi – most managed to maintain their support in principle for the rebels while opposing intervention (rather than opposing the intervention and opposing the rebels as a Western backed movement). I think Libya (and to a certain extent, Syria) has really shaken up modern anti-imperialist thinking for the better – forced it to become rather more nuanced than perhaps it was before (this may be something to return to in future posts – I don’t think it’s been much remarked upon).

More than this, however, the Arab Spring has forced much of the left to rethink its position on Islamism. If there’s one thing that the revolutions have shown it’s that large numbers of Arab people want and will struggle for (as it were) classically progressive ideals – democracy, liberty, equality… – rather than specifically Islamist objectives. It’s clear, furthermore, that in the revolutionary process in Egypt, the Egyptian left is increasingly, inexorably coming into conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood which is slowly adopting a more and more counter-revolutionary role as the revolution continues to deepen, threatening to go beyond the limits that the Brotherhood and the conservative form of Islam it represents is willing to tolerate. It’s quite clear, that is, that in Egypt, Islamism is (or is becoming) an enemy – it’s certainly not a close ally. It’s been pretty noticeable over the past year or two actually that socialists have generally become much less guarded in their criticism of Islamism – the sense of collective relief in relation to this I think is pretty palapable. This new-found willingness to be openly critical of Islamism is another of the political changes that the Arab Spring has set in motion.

So, overall, Galloway’s politics seem significantly out of kilter in the current political conjuncture. They’re dated now. The kinds of compromises that his politics embody are no longer necessary or relevant – if indeed they ever were. It’s still necessary to be vigilant against Islamophobia, of course, and to resist forms of anti-Muslim racism and prejudice. But the main priority now is to build a broad coalition against austerity and to get back, essentially to what we might call a classical form of left-wing alliance building and struggle. I don’t think that the Respect model is right one for this task and I don’t think that Galloway is the right man to lead it. I’m not, of course, saying that Galloway should be shunned in any coming process of realignment on the left – that would be stupid. But I don’t want to see him as a key, leading figure. I don’t want major forces on the left to throw themselves behind a new attempt to rebuild Respect. Let’s build an organisation that can draw in a much broader coalition of forces – one in which Galloway and Respect are welcome, but one in which they are not the central forces.

  1. #1 by Matthew on April 1, 2012 - 7:27 pm

    Is this complete? Shouldn’t there be a second point containing the worries, the critique……?

    • #2 by edrooksby on April 1, 2012 - 8:33 pm

      I’m just posting it in stages as I write it.

  2. #3 by Snowball on April 4, 2012 - 7:28 pm

    Hi Ed – interesting post – but I suggest fundamentally flawed in some of the analysis. Yes there are all sorts of problems with Galloway’s politics – not least their utterly reformist nature – I recommend (re-)reading Chris Harman’s ‘The crisis in Respect’ from an ISJ in 2008 for a refresher in terms of where the tendency towards communalism in Respect clashed with the revolutionary Left in the context of wider electoralist pressures coming from the Gordon Brown ‘bounce’ and its aftermath, and how Galloway chose at that critical time to turn on the revolutionary left.

    However, the main flaw is in your rather simplistic – and frankly un-Marxist – account of Islamism – which ignores the inherent contradictions within this formation (again, Harman’s The Prophet and the Proletariat is critical reading here). You write:

    ‘It’s quite clear, that is, that in Egypt, Islamism is (or is becoming) an enemy – it’s certainly not a close ally.’

    In fact what this misses is that the entry of the MD into government and state power in Egypt has created and will create further all sorts of tensions within the mass membership MB. The essentially middle class base of the MB will perhaps support some of the neo-liberal reforms, attacks on workers living standards, attacks on independent trade unions, socialists etc but among at least some of their younger supporters they associate themselves and identify with the movement of Tahrir Square and ‘the revolution’. Elements of the Salafists (sp) also see themselves as on the side of ‘the revolution’. So the task for the socialist left in Egypt is not to simply attack ‘Islamism’ but to recognise the contradictions and try to build alliances with these left-moving forces in rapidly changing circumstances – which is what the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt have done it seems successfully ever since their formation, working ‘with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never’.

    In terms of Britain, because most of the left inevitably but tragically refuses to embrace a Marxist understanding of religion and in particular Islam, it fails to see that of course the pull of communalism / Islamism might be very strong in a formation like Respect (especially since the departure of those socialist organisations who were once key elements of it) but that there are all sorts of other counter-veiling pressures and complexities here that mean that to dismiss the importance of Respect as any sort of key component in the formation of a wider New Left would be to make a mistake. Of course in an ideal world, the critical parliamentary figurehead for the left-of Labour forces would all be a pure ‘politically correct’ 100% socialist without any idiosyncracies but we live in the real world and such people simply do not exist in the real world.

    I personally think a re-alignment on the Left between Respect and TUSC to form some new kind of electoral coalition offers the best way forward – and inevitably Galloway is going to be a central figure in any such re-alignment. I think it is perverse to suggest that ‘Galloway’s politics seem significantly out of kilter in the current political conjuncture’ and that ‘They’re dated now’ seems perverse when he has just won 56% of the votes in a constituency by-election – something unheard of. Rather than peddle a soft version of Andrew Rawnsley, why not read Tariq Ali (someone who was always critical of the softness towards Islamism in Respect) and think about why he is now so full of praise for Respect’s achievement in Bradford West?

  3. #4 by edrooksby on April 6, 2012 - 12:46 pm

    There’s a kind of characteristic dogmatism to this Snowball that, for all that I respect you, I have also come to associate with your politics. I have read Tariq Ali (and why you think I can’t have is a mystery to me) – he doesn’t actually say anything in that article which is particularly incompatible with what I say here. He doesn’t actually say very much in the article actually. You note that he is critical of Respect’s orientation to Islamism.

    By the end of your comment I am ‘peddling a soft version of Andrew Rawnsley’ and, really, I can’t be bothered to respond to that. The TUSC/SP, by the way, are never going to join a close coalition with Respect. It’s not going to happen. And what you ignore, all the way through, despite your appeal to ‘the real world’ when it suits you to do so amongst the appeals to Marxist correct analysis, is that Galloway is mistrusted at best, by the majority of people on the left – this is especially true of the SP (who are also not that keen, as I understand it, on Respect’s orientation to Islamism).

    If Galloway is the key figure, the same thing will happen as before. There will not be a coalition worth the name. It will be like last time, only more farcical. Large numbers of potential members and supporters will refuse to become involved. That is a ‘real world’ statement whether it’s a tragic reality or not. And I’m sorry but the idea that Galloway is, on the whole, being rejected in favour of some never-never 100% perfect candidate is a sleight of hand on your part. He isn’t. People would simply prefer someone who didn’t arouse such extraordinarily intense dislike and mistrust amongst people who should be allies. There has been a break through – but whether it is a break through into a familiar cul de sac or something better remains to be seen and depends very much on whether a broad coalition of forces can be built – and that will depend on how attractive the organisational form that emerges to build this coalition appears.

  4. #5 by Snowball on April 7, 2012 - 6:10 pm

    I guess we will have a better idea of where the Left stands after the May elections – once we have not only the results from TUSC but also more critically those of Respect who are standing hundreds of council candidates around the North post-Galloway’s triumph. If Respect say take control of Bradford council then that will really put them and their politics to the test – will they oppose putting through Tory cuts or will they follow the example of the Greens in Brighton and put ‘respectability’ before building resistance to austerity?

    Galloway himself, as I said above, is irredeemably reformist in his politics but is also not a typical reformist in that he has some sense of Old Labour traditions around Poplarism and Lansbury – so there is a distinct possibility that a Respect led-council in Bradford could become a beacon of resistance to the cuts around the country if they set out on a course of active resistance.

    This is of course the most optimistic scenario – and they may just become a minority on Bradford council say. A lot will also depend on how well TUSC do – can they get someone onto the GLA in London? – but if TUSC poll miserably in general (I sincerely hope they do not) and Respect make serious gains then it would be the definition of sectarianism for the wider Left / TUSC not to look for ways to work with Respect somehow.

  5. #6 by Snowball on April 9, 2012 - 9:17 pm

    Even the latest statement from the Socialist Party on Respect/Galloway seems to show less of the mistrust than one might have expected and even talks of ‘great possibilities’:

    ‘Respect has decided to challenge for council seats across Bradford in May, with great possibilities if it stands on the basis of firmly opposing all cuts in deeds as well as words.’

  6. #7 by Matthew Caygill on April 11, 2012 - 3:18 pm

    Ed, thanks for this post – and thanks to Snowball for his comments.

    The first general lesson from the extraordinary victory won by George Galloway is that all sections of the British left have looked at this result and discovered that it confirms they have been right all along about their perspectives, strategies and tactics – from the very positive response of the SWP to the very predictably damning response of the AWL. So i would pose this as the first problem – the dogmatic certainty of the left in its totality, which means that we are unlikely to get together in any meaningful sense. Are there feelers being put out for another political coalition? That seems way in advance of what I’ve seen and Respect Mk2 seems unlikely.

    As you say things have moved on since 2007. TUSC has got some implantation, even though it has been painfully slow to develop. The anti-war movement is a lot less visible than it was a few years back, despite the unpopularity of the occupation of Afghanistan. The student movement has come (and gone?). Occupy has come (and gone?). Most importantly there has been a distinct revival of class struggle. For people coming into politics now the hopes, enthusiasms and bitterness around Respect is pretty old stuff.

    On the Galloway question: You are right that are a lot of people who dislike and distrust Galloway with an intensity. There are generation of people who scorn Galloway, going back to those with memories of his stint at War on Want. And there is a lot of mud-slinging about him – and I think, although you want to disassociate yourself from that kind of thing, you are pretty close to mud-slinging yourself.

    The answer to questions about sleazy sexism is to read Helen Pidd’s Guardian article about the campaign in Bradford, the role of women, and the role Galloway played in inspiring the fantastic level of involvement and leadership by women (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/apr/04/how-women-won-it-for-galloway).

    There is the issue of abortion – he has a religiously-based opposition to abortion, but does not campaign against abortion. There are persistent rumours about hostility to LGBT rights, but I think this is made-up by enemies and lacks evidence and veracity.

    I distinctly think you are wrong about him being chauvinistic and nationalistic, he is clearly an internationalist, who has put much of his political capital into various forms of solidarity, especially with the Palestinians.

    And that brings us to the question of his Stalinoid anti-imperialism. As a general characteristic I think that is right, but you are very wrong to allege that he sides “with tyrants like Assad and Gaddafi even when they are facing, and brutally suppressing, genuine popular uprisings and revolutions”. When did Galloway side with Gaddafi? Please give me your evidence and sources. You can go back and find Galloway saying embarrassing things about Assad (and before that, Saddam) – although in both cases he can plausibly say he was talking about the Iraqi and the Syrian peoples. In the case of Syria he has distinctly not being siding with the vicious Assad regime against a popular rising – it is, as always, the case he says of not wanting to replace the small tyrant with the bigger tyrant imposed by and representing Western Imperialism. Now, this isn’t nuanced enough for me; but it isn’t what you say he is saying – and Ed you really need to check what he is saying and apologise for getting him so wrong. You should check out the video of his speech to the Iraqi Democrats Against the Occupation meeting last week that Counterfire is carrying at http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/46-video/15687-george-galloway-mp-bradford-win-shows-we-were-right-to-oppose-war- (and John Rees’s interesting speech too, but I didn’t agree with either 100%).

    And then while he is simultaneously cosying up to secular dictators he is allying with and stirring up the worst of Muslim communalism. But to me it is obvious that what he did in Bradford was take on and challenge the cosy Labour communalism that goes by the name of biraderi and seems to have dominated Bradford politics, and I guess play a huge role in Birmingham and other cities as well. Of course, Respect and Galloway have strong support from Muslims – and there is always the Mark Steel-style sarcastic reply, asking if he should have gone to Exeter instead. What precisely is wrong in getting support from Muslims? I’ve seen a Galloway leaflet and it was very good left-wing anti-austerity stuff (already archived on a political leaflet web-site – see http://www.electionleaflets.org/leaflets/7044/). The stuff about who’s the Muslim was a response to attempts to play the Muslim card against him – and really practical electoral politics is a generally dirtier business than us academics like. And Galloway has to be defended so much because his enemies are out to get him (and Galloway is better than his enemies) as well as being due to various ambiguities.

    I think you are wrong about Respect – and I still remember how convincing your enthusiasm for Respect was way back when… far more enthusiastic than I was. Respect, like STW, played a significant role in showing that alliances across political and racial divides could be built, for attempting to break down Islamophobia .

    On developments in the Arab Spring… well your allegations against Galloway are wrong and he has engaged with the Arab Spring. This is partly an engagement with Islamism – look at Tunisia. I also think you are wrong about creative developments on the left in coping with Libya – Galloway, the SWP and Counterfire all look pretty similar to me and all brush over how close Gaddafi came to eliminating the opposition in February 2011 – if I’m wrong about that please let me know. And I’d also point out that the anti-war movement looked pretty absent over the question of Libya. In Leeds I don’t think Leeds Coalition Against War managed to hold a meeting on it. Nationally STW did some things, but all pretty marginal in scope and effect.

    So I agree with Snowball that you are making some errors of detail. You might well be right that a positive future for the left can’t be built around Galloway. I think you are right – he is too divisive, ambiguous and weighed down for all that. Respect couldn’t keep Galloway accountable. The SWP couldn’t make Galloway accountable. I’d be surprised if Galloway could be made more accountable this time round. But I don’t think it is about Galloway, with his good points and bad points – it is about the thousands in who broke with tradition and voted for a radical anti-austerity and anti-war platform in favour of social justice. And that wouldn’t have happened without Galloway.

    Meanwhile I generally agree with Snowball on the rightness of Chris Harman’s analysis of political Islam and the correctness of his views on the strategy of Marxists in relating to Islamic political forces – I think the test has been in what the small forces of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists have managed to achieve. But at the same time I really do think that the SWP must apologise for their disgraceful and destructive role in the break-up of Respect. It makes me sad that Harman has missed out on the Arab Spring – and that we’ve missed out on what Harman would have had to say about it, but I’m even sadder to think that I didn’t just disagree with the last major piece by him, but that I found it dishonest. Come on SWP, say that you were wrong (and don’t just say John Rees made us do it, but he’s gone now) – otherwise we’ve got to conclude that the dogmatic and sectarian certainty of all the left groups means that the chances of actually moving forward are limited.

    Bradford West set the left a challenge – can they do as well in the elections on May 3rd. Respect have got a better chance in Bradford – although standing in only 12 seats means they will be a long way away from power, and maybe Abjol Miah can into Tower Hamlets council in the Weaver ward by-election. But we’ll see how well TUSC and the various Independent Socialists can do. But note that in TUSC the SWP will be working for SWP candidates and the SP for SP candidates, so it doesn’t look like a generalised vehicle for unity. But we’ll see that’s one of the great things about elections – you can’t hide from the results.

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