David Jamieson

David Jamieson

Gaza, Galloway and the Backlash

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The state’s response to George Galloway’s by-election victory has exposed an anti-democratic, anti-Muslim backlash. Those on the left most concerned to distance themselves from Rochdale’s new MP are an unprincipled liability, argues David Jamieson.

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Is it too soon to draw a couple of long-run conclusion from George Galloway’s stunning victory in Rochdale – his third outside the big party system?

The first, is that in spite of First Past the Post and its famous ability to protect the establishment from electoral challenge, the British party system is decomposing. Don’t let Labour’s poll position fool you – it’s no surprise after 14 years of destructive Conservative government which is now eating itself alive. The foundations of both major parties (and the third and fourth parties) are rotten and weak. A poll coinciding with Galloway’s election found just 12 per cent now trusted them.

Second, British foreign policy in the Middle East is a key factor in that decomposition. Ignore the born-again provincials who have suddenly decided politics is exclusively about pot holes (flourishing though they may be, with local governments facing bankruptcy). Britain’s sovereignty-robbing attachment to US global power is eviscerating our domestic political leadership.

Reading the scene in these terms is beyond some observers, who are caught up in the spectacle. The focus on Galloway’s alleged character only speaks to the gross immaturity of much of the have-a-go punditry. I’m not sure what condemnations of Galloway’s ‘egotism’ or ‘rudeness’ are supposed to infer. Many on the liberal left are gripped by the utopian faith that a ‘new man’ is coming. We might one day have a pitch-perfect, sterile breed of haunted wax-works who all think and talk like a Human Resources department. The fact that so much of centre-left politics across the world now resembles just such a dead-eyed freak show, with catastrophic consequences, has yet to sully the dream. But it will never be realised – the new, house-trained humanity isn’t coming.

The same must be said for more substantive political differences, at least where these are used to anathematise political actors. A ‘pure’ leftwing movement, the living catechism of correct ideology, will never materialise either. Even just a few years ago, it was a hard argument to make that politics should not be conceived as a struggle between social liberalism and social conservatism. Then, I used the example of the mass anti-war movement of 2003 to illustrate the point. I’m glad this period was my introduction to movement politics. The historic context instantly ruled-out the conclusion that social conservatives (or simply anyone not on the bleeding edge of the new moral values) were untouchables. It was not the case then, and is not the case today, that Muslims represent an alien and atavistic social creed – the constant refrain of establishment liberalism. But the sheer size and diversity of the movement, then as now, forbade the kinds of culture war coalitions established since 2016. The continued existence of broad social movements, made up of people who disagree on many things, is assured.

When it comes to Galloway himself, no one should feel obliged to ignore his wrong-headed attitudes. But we are obliged to contextualise them in two ways. The first has been surveyed by Kevin Ovenden, who places Galloway’s particular brand of left-populism in its political conjuncture: “His actual political position and perspective is an evolution from the left popular insurgency of a decade ago. It is an answer to the crisis of that insurgency. That is not restricted to the collapse of Corbynism: see Die Linke in Germany, Podemos in Spain… and above all else, Syriza in Greece.

“But as with populist left politician Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany, it is a wrong answer for the left and even in its own terms for the best that her perspective might achieve.”

In Scotland, we’ve more evidence than most of the dead-ends to which Galloway’s own opportunism can lead. He called for a vote for the Conservatives in the Scottish elections of 2021 – the very party now denouncing him as illegitimate.

The second effort of contextualisation is even more important. It is to understand what is happening right now in Britain. Galloway didn’t vote himself into the position of MP for Rochdale. This is a point made by arch Blairite, former Rochdale MP, and Iraq War enthusiast Denis MacShane, who neatly summed up the political and media establishment’s scurrilous dismissal of the by-election result. He complained of the “superior tone of London political elites…insulting 12,000 voters and anyone angry with mass slaughter of innocents and refusal of U.K. political elite to call it out.” Even hard-bitten defenders of the establishment can see how pathological the split between rulers and ruled is becoming.

The centrepiece of the Westminster backlash was, of course, Rishi Sunak’s use of a national address to condemn the Rochdale vote, as representing the rise of extremism. The whole by-election was shrouded in claims of unseen Islamist conspiracies, threatening democracy itself.

Green MSP Ross Greer exemplified the unprincipled response to this rhetoric, when he characterised Sunak and Galloway as two bad actors, each requiring repudiation. Sunak’s appeal from the steps of No.10 would, he claimed, only strengthen Galloway – as if this is the real danger.

To wedge a ‘two extremist sides’ take in to this situation ignores the obvious threat. One of these actors is the state, driving a dangerous, bigoted and anti-democratic agenda. The other is a man just elected on working class votes and an anti-war platform, with Gaza the central issue. The timing of the election makes the victory part of the anti-war movement, whether some in that movement like it or not.

There is no dual threat. What we should be concentrated on is the developing pincer movement, where the state and ‘street level’, fake anti-establishment of the right attack together. There was a direct echo from the steps of No.10 to the Reform party in Rochdale, which implied the vote had been rigged and that a nation-wide conspiracy of ‘certain constituencies’ – the modish euphemism for Muslims – was planning an assault on democracy. Nigel Farage – another intrepid free speech warrior on the right, chimed in. He is in favour of the banning of at least some marches, and said that those saying ‘from the river to the sea’, a traditional pro-Palestinian slogan about which so much froth has been produced in recent months, should be arrested.

It’s a sharp reminder of what a real politics of racist stigmatisation looks like – mobilising the state, free range, quasi-establishment bigoted movements, and the rightwing press. And it’s precisely what the fashionable, identarian anti-racism of recent years in unprepared for.

In this creed, racism is just a vapour hanging in the air. It is not created through social relationships at a mass level. The evil wind can attach itself to anyone and anything, and is just as dangerous when manifested by a nobody in the street as a head of state. It is the racism fought with film criticism, pop music and the adumbration of supposed ‘micro-aggressions’. The idea that racism doesn’t come from the state and other powerful institutions, but instead grows from ‘everyday’ interactions, and finds nourishment from popular ignorance, is attractive to those who wish to promote their own virtue but not risk political confrontation. The true ‘anti-racist’, here, is the person clean of infraction and educated in all the latest words and concepts used to understand ‘whiteness’ or ‘decolonial practice’.

It is, in other words, essentially a form of class politics reproduced by elites, and wide open to manipulation by ‘anti-racist’ political and media figures for their own purposes. We shouldn’t be surprised that this new brand of anti-racism collapses in the face of the sinister, instrumentally racist project being promulgated between Sunak, the Tory right, Reform and the press, and accepted and encouraged by Labour and their outriders.

Declaring war on every house – from Galloway (and with him the mandate he has just won for an end to British support for the horrors in Gaza) to Sunak, is cowardly and unprincipled. But worse, it is anti-political. It is a retreat to a preening personal morality when the times demand a serious, mass public politics resisting war, the stigmatisation of the Muslim community, and the attacks on all of our civil liberties.

Recent months should have clarified much for those involved in the movement. We need unity – yes even in the face of real and important differences (and even more so the myriad unimportant differences thrown-up in the culture war) – organisation, sober analysis and political discipline. It’s time to drop the dead weight of moralist obscurantism and petty opportunism. If we don’t, it will prove a danger in months and years to come, as an increasingly desperate state lashes out.

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