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.