The return of George Galloway is a political fact. Once expelled from the Labour Party for calling on British soldiers to resist the war in and against Iraq, he became the epitome of opportunistic, celebrity politics since. Under the banner of the Respect Party – a coalition of Trotskyist groups, Labour left locals, and largely Muslim petty bourgeois – he was elected MP for Bethnal Green & Bow, defeating the Labour candidate Oona King. Yet he failed to deliver on anything useful while in parliament. One must not overstate the significance of parliamentary elections as a vehicle for radical social change, but precisely a representative of a small party, agitating on the left, must make sure to do everything possible to maximize the parliamentary presence. One must either reject the parliamentary road altogether, which is leaving a possible lever on the state power unused and uncontested to our political opponents, or one must partake in it, and take it as seriously as one can as a forum for exposing the opposition and expanding practical means of socialist politics. What is disastrous are strategies which try to achieve neither, either by choosing parliamentary methods and abandoning all other modes of struggle altogether, or by the opposite, entering parliament and doing nothing at all with it.
Galloway undertook the latter – for a salary several times that of the median worker, he failed to vote or take part in parliamentary activity almost entirely. Between 2005 and 2009, only eleven MPs voted less often than he did, and that includes the abstentionists of Sinn Fein and the speaker and his deputies, as well as two MPs who died in office. Galloway claimed to have compensated for this by his public activities – making speeches against imperialism, challenging the reactionaries of the US Senate in their own chamber, and so forth. But he had precious little to show for it. Galloway also plays to religious, sectarian sentiments; he fails to clearly distinguish a meaningful anti-imperialism from hypocritical sycophancy towards regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria; the Respect Party itself has consistently shown its opportunism in its dalliances with reactionary religious groups and movements in the UK. His embarrassing participation in the reality TV programme “Celebrity Big Brother” only underlines his activities as being fundamentally opportunistically self-interested, self-aggrandizing, and making a mockery of socialism, which does not need such ‘friends’.
Yet his recent overwhelming victory in the by-election in Bradford West, where he obtained an absolute majority of the votes in a safe Labour seat, is not to be lightly ignored. It is an important political result, mainly in what it reveals about the opposition. First, the most telling fact has been the general total failure of many commentators to take the agency of the muslim working class and lower middle class voters seriously. Brendan O’Neill of Spiked wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph in which he posited Galloway’s victory as being the result of a general disenchantment with politics and therefore a purely negative vote, a ‘protest vote’, with no political content. But there is absolutely no reason to believe this other than a stubborn unwillingness to believe that minority voters in the United Kingdom are capable of recognizing their interests politically, both on the foreign and the domestic front. Galloway’s main claim to fame was always his opposition to the imperialist designs of the Labour Party, and his participation in the election in Bradford as well as in east London was in large part to force a split on this issue. He has succeeded in this, because the Muslim population of the UK has no benefit from imperialism against Muslim countries (or any other), and knows this full well. This is as much a real, substantial political position as any of O’Neill himself. Secondly, Galloway’s victory in Bradford was a reaction against Labour Party corruption – the tendency of local cliques to use the party’s influence in poor areas to create ‘ward boss’ type systems which perpetuate themselves in exchange for minor local favors, not much unlike the political systems that prevailed among poor migrants in the United States in the late 19th century.
It would be wrong, however, to dismiss it therefore as merely a contingent product of local circumstances. The very fact the Labour Party is so amenable to such corrupt clique politics, not just in Bradford but in London and elsewhere, is a telling statement about the hollowing out of its own political significance and programme. O’Neill should point out that the real political negativity is with the Labour Party, not with Galloway. This total absence of a meaningful programme, unable even to rhetorically oppose the savage regime of austerity imposed by the government, demonstrates the ultimate culmination of the Labour Party’s reformist, pro-imperialist, and appeasing strategy towards the ruling classes and the manifest iniquities and dysfunctionalities of capitalism that produce them. Since 1924, the Labour Party’s record has been in foreign policy an almost unbroken chain of treasons, supporting the Empire, the interests of British capital globally, and the oppression and murder of foreign peoples wherever it could. Domestically, it has done nothing but split itself time and again from attempts to re-establish a socialist politics in its own ranks, and has at every juncture when confronted with the demands of organized capitalism attempted a policy of full-on retreat and appeasement.
There is no reason to assume that the voters who elected Galloway in Bethnal Green & Bow, or in Bradford, would not be aware of this or capable of finding it out. Labour’s own failures in recent years only reflect the larger historical obsolescence of social-democratic reformism as a political movement and strategy; an obsolescence demonstrated by the almost total accomodation of nominally social-democratic parties with the neoliberal turn in capitalist politics, including its programme of greatly increasing the repressive powers of the capitalist states against the inevitable resistance this generates. This, too, Muslim voters will know – and not just the Muslim voters either. Although those votes are as valuable as anyone’s, Galloway won the ‘white’ wards as well. The by-election had a turnout of 50%; by British standards, this is very high. Equally, without a clear programme of exposing the historical failure of the Labour Party, Galloway failed entirely to win the seat of Poplar against the Labour candidate, notwithstanding the considerable Muslim population of that constituency.
For this reason Mehdi Hasan, too, is wrong to criticize their election of Galloway in his Guardianarticle as being too obsessed with opposition to imperialism, too obsessed with foreign policy. Not only is the idea that such opposition reveals an un-British interest in affairs abroad a notion which almost entirely accomodates to the logic that seeks to divide migrants and ‘autochthonous’ populations according to their origin, which is nefarious blaming of the victim, as comrade Snowdon points out; but more importantly, it is politically beside the point. Galloway’s strengths are precisely the failures of the social-democratic project after its neoliberal turn: not just its war-mongering and enthusastic imperialism, but also its corruption, its lack of political purpose, its manifest failure to address ever-greater inequality, its aggressive pursuit of greater repressive state power, its participation in rhetoric against poor people, the ‘underclass’, the unemployed, immigrants, asylum seekers, and so forth.
There is nothing particularly foreign-minded about resistance to this, as the growing resistance to neoliberal politics within and without Britain demonstrates. There is also nothing purely negative or oppositional about this per se. That Galloway is an opportunistic clown only means that there is room to the left of the Labour Party even for such figures to operate successfully, as long as they are clear-headed enough to expose that the social-democratic emperor has no clothes. That is a real political conclusion, one with serious consequences for the surprisingly large numbers of people willing not just to accept it, but even willing to vote on it, and this notwithstanding the exceedingly narrow framework of British parliamentary politics. As Engels said in a similar situation, many years ago: “The ice has been broken and two workers now have seats in the most fashionable debating club of Europe, among those who have declared themselves the first gentlemen of Europe”. This is a real statement about the direction in which many of the most oppressed and exploited people of the UK want to take their “rights, their freedoms, their collective future”, to quote Hasan. It is not because of, but despite Galloway. The tree of social-democratic politics is now thoroughly rotten. If it must be Galloway who first swings the axe at it, so be it – as long as it comes down.