Coll McCail

Coll McCail

Coll McCail: Lessons from Rochdale

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Conter is pleased to announce that we will be carrying a range of monthly column writers. First up is Coll McCail, a Scottish activist and writer. He is the editor of Skotia and a member of Progressive International’s Secretariat.

Plenty has been written over recent days about George Galloway’s victory in the Rochdale by-election. Most mainstream commentators opted to sensationalise the result, delighting in the eschewing pantomime which climaxed as Rishi Sunak delivered his statement outside of Downing Street. Paul Mason, for example, argued Galloway should be handled ‘like the Greek Parliament treated Golden Dawn,’ suggesting a cross-party campaign to defend democracy from Britain’s newest MP. The i Newspaper appeared to go as far as to launch Paul Waugh, the paper’s ex-chief Political commentator, as the candidate to succeed Galloway at the General Election. The purpose of this piece is not to add to the circus, but to explore why Britain’s political class were so comprehensively beaten in Rochdale and what we can learn from their panicked reaction to the result.

When all the ballots were counted on Friday morning, England’s three largest Westminster parties had amassed just 26% of the vote. The Workers Party, meanwhile, were still some 4,000 votes ahead of their cumulative tally. The story of the Rochdale by-election then is one of profound alienation. Galloway’s emphatic victory, more than anything else, is a clear rejection of Britain’s thoroughly unrepresentative political class. Many will dismiss such a claim, arguing that you cannot extrapolate a broader narrative from a by-election with very specific circumstances. On Friday, however, the ONS revealed that only 12% of the British public trust political parties – a drop of 8% on 2022’s figure. For the likes of Mason and Waugh – who have both hitched their careers to the Starmer Project, trying and failing to become Labour General Election candidates – disguising this trend is a necessity and confirmation of their political weakness.

Every day for the last four months, the public has watched and scrolled in horror as the people of Palestine are subjected to the most egregious crimes. Our political leaders, on the other hand, have not only mounted a defiant defence of the perpetrators but often actively encouraged them. In December, 71% of the British public found almost no representation for their support for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza among Britain’s dominant parties. The fury and despair that people feel as a consequence has only exacerbated a pre-existing disconnect between politicians and those they represent. Forty years of neoliberalism have imposed confines on our democracy, breeding only apathy among the electorate. It is for this reason that to write off the Rochdale result as a protest vote would be to ignore the wider context of the election.

National demonstrations for Palestine in London have gathered well over 200,000 attendees every other week since October. At the crux of these demonstrations has been the very feeling that propelled George Galloway to victory in Rochdale. Outraged and disempowered by politicians who time and again denied any political expression of their anger, a mass movement took root across the country that provided people with the opportunity to channel their fury into collective action.

With popular support for a ceasefire in Gaza and a million people in the streets, the British state remained unwavering in its support for Israel. Through the prism of Palestine, the mass movement challenged the legitimacy of representative democracy. The confrontation between the protestors and the state plainly illustrated that the interests of British imperialism are outside the remit of democracy. After all, alienation, as Jimmy Reid noted, is the ‘cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control.’ By highlighting the limitations of our nominally democratic system, these protests began to evidence the isolation of Britain’s political class and a more general disenfranchisement among their voters.

Mainstream political parties have responded to the spread of apathy by attempting to entrench it. In his New Year’s address, Keir Starmer barely stopped short of promising to make politics go away entirely, committing to ‘a politics that treads a little lighter on all of our lives’. Shrinking the political sphere and minimising popular engagement allows Labour to choose the path of least resistance, aligning itself as the primary party of capital and avoiding class confrontation. However, as popular mobilisations illustrate, anti-politics will not wash as Gaza is reduced to rubble. While other politicians tried to triangulate on the issue, in Rochdale George Galloway’s campaign confronted it head-on. Couple this with his promise to represent those alienated by anti-politics and it’s no wonder a figure who can communicate as well as Galloway is returning to Westminster.

Labour has dismissed the Rochdale results as a consequence of their decision to withdraw support from their candidate. However, the circumstances surrounding Azhar Ali’s suspension relate to the anti-political dynamic outlined above. Starmer’s fear of mass-external politics is mimicked in his attempts to centralise power in the hands of his allies and strip power from members within the Labour Party. In this case, his factional selection processes ensured Ali, a former Blair advisor, escaped the ‘due diligence’ to which other candidates are subject.

Neither the Government nor Starmer’s Labour have proved capable of mounting a defence of their position on Gaza. Doing so would expose their naked inhumanity and subservience to Washington’s directives. Consequently, they are incapable of advancing a counter-argument to that posed by the mass movement. Last week, James Cleverly illustrated this point perfectly by pleading with protestors to stop marching, telling them they’ve “made their point.” Consistent state-led efforts to repress the Palestine cause – whether they be in the smoky rooms of Westminster, TV studios or by whipping up a moral panic against British Muslims – come from this exact place of political weakness. It is for that reason more than any other that Rishi described Galloway’s election as “beyond alarming” and has received Starmer’s support from his attempts to curtail the right to protest.

Keir Starmer’s support for these measures is informed by the belief that, in the words of Labour Together’s Josh Simons, voters would only notice “what Labour’s stance was when we get to the general election campaign.” I would wager many will not forget Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and David Lammy’s complicity so easily. Foreign policy is perennially underestimated as a factor which influences people’s voting intention. The electorate cares more for Carlisle than Kabul, so the cliche goes. Time and again, this assumption has been proved incorrect. In 2015, Lord Falconer, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies, confessed that Labour’s demise in Scotland ‘began with the Iraq War,’ which the SNP adamantly opposed.

The anti-war movement then is not a threat to democracy. It is a threat to the established and dominant style of politics in this country. When people first poured into the streets to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, their protests were called ‘hate marches’. Today, many of the politicians who castigated the movement in October have adopted its demand. Far from discovering morality, most fear for their seats as a consequence of the fury and alienation illustrated by popular protest. Rochdale was the first place this feeling found political expression. It is unlikely to be the last.

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