George Galloway, a key figure in the formation of the Respect coalition in 2003, is standing in the July 1 Batley and Spen by-election for his latest political instrument, the Workers Party of Great Britain. The by-election has been brought about by the resignation of Labour MP Tracy Brabin, following her victory earlier this year in the election for the Mayor of West Yorkshire. The candidate chosen to represent the Labour Party in Batley and Spen is Kim Leadbetter, sister of former MP Jo Cox, slain by a fascist gunman in 2016.
George Galloway claims he is likely to win or come second, and in any case, he says Labour will be defeated. The latest opinion poll puts Labour on 41 %, the Tories on 47% and Galloway on 6%. If the Tories win, doubtless Labour spokespeople will point the finger at Galloway. But those really responsible will be Starmer and the post-Corbyn leadership, and it is quite possible that Starmer will be gone by the week-end—if Labour loses.
Whatever happens on that front, the Galloway campaign is reactionary and disgraceful from a socialist viewpoint, and that is despite his good positions on Palestine and Islamophobia. Because of his position on those issues, Galloway has significant support in the Asian community. But his campaign overall repeats many right-wing themes and is an obvious attempt to garner support from both reactionary white voters and more conservative members of the Asian community.
Galloway explains his strategy in a very friendly interview published at the hard-right Spiked! website. The Workers Party of Great Britain, says Galloway, is where Labour should be— ‘economically radical, but socially and culturally conservative.’ So Galloway repeats right-wing stereotypes about Labour and pro-LBGT+ rights campaigners, namely that they represent ‘urban elites’.
Asked why Labour lost support in the Red Wall seats, Galloway argues:
It has been going astray for at least 40 years. It’s not just Keir Starmer’s fault. Labour took a California turn almost 40 years ago. Class and economic policy became less important to Labour and identity politics and wokeness became the mantra.
Class and economic policy did not become less important for New Labour; rather they adopted anti-working class positions on these things through pro-business positions of cuts and privatisation, which turned out to be disastrous for poorer post-industrial towns and cities. Galloway repeats the Spectator-Daily Mail line that it is ‘woke’ politics that lost Labour support, rather than the more obvious and fundamental fact that right-wing Labour, Blair’s New Labour government in particular, failed to do anything to help there working class in declining Northern and Midlands post-industrial towns that remain mired in poverty and neglect, with declining public services; including especially council services, social care in particular, whose undermining New Labour permitted in its 1998-2010 tenure in government.
As New Labour failed poorer sections of the working class from the 1990’s onwards, UKIP and other right wing forces were given the space to build up support on a nationalist and racist basis. As younger people moved out to the big urban centres like London and Manchester, older white and left-behind workers became more open to racist and reactionary ideas. You can see this pattern in the votes for UKIP and the BNP in successive elections, and in the pro-Brexit votes in the 2016 referendum.
In his interview, Galloway correctly attacks Keir Starmer’s failure to challenge the Tories on the Covid-19 pandemic and on the fundamentals of Tory economics. But then Galloway launches into a tirade about Trans rights, an obvious attempt to appeal to social conservatism in both Asian and white working class communities.
As a platform for a by-election, Galloway’s cross-community conservatism might just about hold water. But over a long time and geographical space it would collapse for obvious reasons, notably that large numbers of socially conservative white workers want Asians, radical, reactionary or otherwise, deported! There is no basis for creating an alliance among socially reactionary white people (working class or middle class) and socially conservative Muslims, because it will always be disrupted by racism.
To win over socially conservative Muslim voters, Galloway clearly has in mind the events at Anderton Park primary school in Birmingham in 2019, where reactionary sectors of the Muslim community campaigned against LBGT+ friendly education to primary school students. He says:
As a father, I have the right to withdraw my children from things that I don’t want them to be taught. That’s a position that crosses community boundaries.
That may go across community boundaries, but making kids education on LBGT+ issues (and other issues like climate change and racism) subject to the approval of reactionary parents, is not a progressive or socialist position. It is the opposite.
Galloway accepts a whole series of reactionary right-wing stereotypes, including the idea that workers in the big cities, who for example voted against Brexit by a huge majority, do not represent ‘the working class’, whereas reactionary white workers in smaller post-industrial cities do. He takes it for granted that most workers in poorer post-industrial cities accept socially conservative positions, which is far from being the case – the working class is split on these issues. His line on these issues links directly to the Spiled!-Sun-Daily Mail-Spectator-Telegraph nonsense that being militant about racism, women’s rights and LBGT+ rights is something that concerns middle class, university educated, people and not the working class. As if Black people, LBGT+ people and women were somehow not part of the working class and not affected by questions of oppression and discrimination.
Making a play for the socially conservative white vote means that Galloway is skating on racist thin ice. The people who are his new friends on the rabidly reactionary right are the self-same people who on a daily basis pour scorn on Black Lives Matter in the popular press, and who are winning support for that position among people who boo the English football team taking the knee. In a recent interview on Spiked, influential right-wing pundit Rod Liddle says he is a good friend of Galloway’s, but they have to ‘park’ the issue of Palestine and Israel to get along. It is unclear why they don’t have to park the issue of Black Lives Matter. Or racism in general. George Galloway extends the policy of ‘no comment’ omerta to immigration, about which he and his party say nothing.
Palestine is indeed a question which has mobilised tens of thousands of Muslim youth in Britain. During the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Asian youth marched on pro-Palestine demonstrations alongside people from the labour movement and the radical left, and not the socially conservative right. More than 140 Asian school students have been disciplined for organising pro-Palestinian demonstrations in schools, and many have been referred to the ‘Prevent’ re-education process or interviewed by the police. The Left of course defends these Asian school students, but socially conservative white workers will be on the other side, as is Rod Liddle, Spiked! And the whole of the Mail-Telegraph-Spectator right wing.
There is another aspect of Galloway’s terminology that we should remember. He uses the term ‘woke’ liberally to describe both Labour and his opponents on the Left. But the term ‘woke’ is the contemporary embodiment of its predecessor ‘politically correct’. The reactionary right in whatever political party, and reactionary people of every description, used the term ‘politically correct’ to denote people concerned to defend the rights and needs of people in the Global South, poor people, disabled people, working class people, Black people, women, LGBT+ people – indeed the massive majority of people exploited by u global capitalism and its racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynist ideologies.Whatever its origin is US radical circles, ‘woke’ is now a term of abuse, largely co-extensive with Left and social radicalism.
George Galloway will come nowhere near winning the Batley and Spen by-election because socially conservative white voters are going to vote for the Tories, not for him and his pro-Palestinian, anti-Islamophobic positions. An attempt to tie together social conservatives in white working class and Asian communities will fall at the first hurdle.
In passing, let us note another fundamentally reactionary part of the Galloway campaign, namely the very name of his organisation—The Workers Party of Great Britain—which states at the outset an opposition to the right of self-determination of the people of Scotland and Wales.
If Labour crashes in Batley and Starmer goes, it will be too easy for pro-Labour commentators to lay the blame at the door of George Galloway. Labour should be winning the election by a landslide, given the terrible record of the Johnson government. Starmer and the Labour right have to own their own failure.
Nonetheless, there are many on the British Left who hanker after Galloway’s fundamental idea—the working class can be united around economic issues, and the Left should keep quiet about race, nation and gender. A strategy which allows the right to divide the working class and one that will always lead to defeat.
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