The Future is Rochdale

Why Galloway Won

The Rochdale by-election has upset all the right people.

Future tripping: Gaza protest, 2009.

Once again, the electorate voted incorrectly; it elected George Galloway, and certain people can’t fathom why.

Pundits across the political spectrum have been ranting and raving about the result.

Paul Mason has even suggested the Workers’ Party be treated like Golden Dawn, the Greek neofascist party that was outlawed and its members arrested.

Tough. George Galloway is back in Parliament. He was sworn in Monday and made headlines by pledging to oust Angela Rayner and take the fight to Starmer’s Labour.

It’s time to ask how this happened.

Many Muslims in Rochdale voted for Galloway because he was the only candidate to share their anger about Gaza.

This fact is talked about in the press as if Muslims expressing their political views is illegitimate.

Galloway was described as “divisive”, and his victory was also portrayed as ‘mob rule’ and even a triumph of sectarian politics.

It’s often the case that divisive means “unpopular in SW1”, while “controversial” usually means you’re a bit of a fascist.

But these clichés are deployed in the absence of real distinctions.

The point of such words is not to clarify who they are or what they represent. These are throwaway terms for journalists constrained by the false bonds of impartiality.

One man’s controversy is another man’s bread and butter. But whatever you think of George Galloway’s politics, he’s a great campaigner and orator.

Keir Starmer has apologised to the people of Rochdale while pretending Labour activists weren’t campaigning for Azhar Ali until the bitter end.

But the farce peaked with Rishi Sunak giving an emergency speech to decry Galloway’s victory.

Sunak conflated his election campaign (and all pro-Palestine activism, by extension) with “Islamic extremism.”

The premier’s fear-mongering response to a single by-election shows how significant the Rochdale vote actually was.

No war in recent memory has upset European minorities more than the so-called Sukkot War. Not just Arabs and Muslims but Blacks, too.

It was inevitable that a leftist politician would see an opportunity there, particularly given Labour’s shift to the right on Israel.

That it turned out to be George Galloway is a worst-case scenario come true. Particularly given his conservative cultural politics.

Galloway could appeal to a broader potential constituency, drawing BAME voters away from both the Tories and Labour.

In such a scenario, Keir Starmer would have the most to lose. He certainly did in Rochdale.

Gorgeous George

Some of us remember when Galloway was a figure of hope for the antiwar left.

Galloway had been purged from the Labour Party for saying British troops should defy “illegal orders”.

We all remember George Galloway appearing before the US Congress and bullishly defending his record, verbally punching a Republican senator to a bloody pulp.

Even better, Galloway sparked up a fat Cuban cigar in the hall afterwards.

Those days are long gone with the era of New Labour.

Since then, we’ve seen Galloway support Bashar al-Assad in Syria and make excuses for Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.

We’ve seen him campaign with Nigel Farage for Brexit and vote Tory to defeat the Scottish National Party.

Galloway has come to embody the right/left mix that ex-communists like Sahra Wagenknecht can only dream of.

Everyone has heard the controversies about George Galloway, from Saddam Hussein’s “indefatigability” to Julian Assange’s “bad sexual etiquette.”

If you’re old enough, you might even remember him playing a cat on Big Brother. The former boxer—once dubbed Gorgeous George—is quite the character.

Portrayed by his critics as a chancer and a demagogue, only Galloway could have come up with the slogan: “Make Rochdale great again.”

After all this time,  Galloway’s time has finally come.

Rochdale is one of the many forgotten, left-behind towns of Northern England. Its name is synonymous with child sexual abuse and Muslim rape gangs.

The Galloway campaign tapped into anger at the Gaza war, but it also tapped into the pain and fear of the gang scandal and the sense of declinism in the town.

One local issue it captured was saving Rochdale Football Club from closing down.

As a result, many people are now talking about a red-brown alliance.

This phrase originally referred to the National Bolsheviks of Russia and the common ground between fascists and communists in opposing neoliberalism in the 1990s.

The differences between the UK today and Russia in the ‘90s should be obvious. So why are people making this comparison?

George Galloway’s populist coalition has brought together Muslim Labour voters with white working-class and lower-middle-class voters.

A big part of Galloway’s appeal was always the conservative side of social democracy.

This is similar to the now-forgotten Blue Labour project, except Galloway can win in places like Rochdale.

What is different about Galloway is he mobilises the Muslim vote. That’s what makes the Westminster class and lobby journalists nervous.

After all, BAME voters are supposed to be invisible in British democracy.

We never hear about the Black or Asian working class except to demonise them.

We only hear about the white working class when it comes to immigration, where racism is somehow framed as a proletarian cause.

Like Jean-Luc Melenchon in France, Galloway has struck a chord with Muslim voters because of his trenchant anti-imperialist views.

His political style is syncretic Bigmanism.

Whatever happens next, BAME voters aren’t going away. They need representation and will seek it out when the UK’s two-party regime does not provide it.

Either the political class in SW1 listens, or they should get used to hearing Galloway in Parliament.

New Hope?

There is now talk of the Workers’ Party of Great Britain taking a leading role in building challenger campaigns against Labour candidates.

Former ANC politician Andrew Feinstein is standing against Keir Starmer in St. Pancras.

The Workers’ Party reportedly supports his campaign, but there is talk that Feinstein may run against another Labour MP who is easier to beat.

Galloway was preparing to target 50 seats in the upcoming general election. Now, after Rochdale, the Workers’ Party is considering running up to 100 candidates.

The Worker’s Party may have a lot of appeal to voters looking for an alternative.

The trouble is George Galloway’s record is one of shock-and-awe victories with no follow-up campaign.

Nowhere Galloway has won has he built a lasting mass movement or political party capable of challenging the status quo.

Yet the left should build on the model coalition around Galloway. We’ve been here before with Gorgeous George, with the Respect Party being the most obvious case.

The Respect experiment first hit the buffers back in 2007, when Galloway broke with his allies in the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP).

He had won in Bow and Bethnal Green partly with the help of the SWP campaigners, but just two years later, the national party was moribund.

Galloway was the party, while the SWP was its organisational base.

Without the SWP, George Galloway decided not to stand again in 2010 but would return to Parliament two years later. This was another shock victory.

This time, Galloway won by 55.9% in the Bradford West by-election. The vote showed there was an electoral coalition for left-wing politics in Britain.

This was a multiethnic coalition of Muslim voters, students and a slice of old Labour voters.

Like in Rochdale, Galloway’s victory was followed by claims of dirty tricks. He was accused of playing into ethnic tensions and of playing the patronage game.

Bradford West later turfed out Galloway in 2015. This was after the Respect campaign against Labour candidate Naz Shah turned nasty.

Galloway claimed to have obtained documents from Pakistan to dispute her claim she was married off as an underage girl.

By now, Respect was in terminal decline. The party of Galloway had suffered a major crisis in 2012 over his gross comments about the rape allegations against Julian Assange (“Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.”)

Long-time ally Salma Yaqoob (one of the most talented politicians on the left) resigned in disgust.

Respect would stagger on until 2016. Galloway ran for London mayor and later stood in Manchester Gorton as an independent in 2017.

Both campaigns were unsuccessful.

Galloway seemed more marginal than ever in the Corbyn era. His political career might be over, but he was due a comeback.

The Workers’ Party of Great Britain was founded just after Labour’s defeat in the 2019 general election.

Perhaps Galloway sensed an opening in the death throes of the Corbyn project. He wasn’t wrong.

The UK left needs a new project. But at this stage, is it likely to come from Galloway? Probably not.

Nevertheless, the Rochdale by-election shows a yearning to break with British business as usual.

Photograph courtesy of Vince Millett. Published under a Creative Commons license.