How can the left make the most of the Bradford West result? Peter Manson joins the debate (first published in the Weekly Worker)
George Galloway’s tremendous win for Respect in Bradford West has given the left a real boost. Standing on an anti-cuts, anti-war, anti-establishment platform, he swept to victory with a huge 55.9% share of the vote.
It is fair to say that this result took everyone by surprise – apart from the Respect campaigners on the ground, who began to realise within the last week or so that they had an excellent chance of winning. I have to admit that I was among those who thought Galloway would do well to save his deposit – especially after his failure to get elected to the Scottish parliament last year, where the Coalition Against Cuts list he headed in Glasgow picked up only 3.3%.
But at least I was not caught out quite so spectacularly as Paul Routledge in the Daily Mirror. The early edition the day after the election carried a short piece on his political chat page headed “Imran races to victory”. This began: “By the time you read this, Imran Hussain will have been declared Labour MP for Bradford West … I would put my best shirt on a win for Ed Miliband’s candidate in the by-election. Local boy Imran will make a good MP. And I would put my second best shirt on the Tories coming third behind either Ukip or Respect, with the Lib Dems nowhere … These are real votes cast by real people, who have considered Osborne’s budget and the scandal of cash for access to number 10. Their verdict counts” (March 30).
It seems those “real people” also considered the main alternative – the party that had held the ‘safe’ Labour seat of Bradford West for four decades – and decided they did not like it much. But at least Routledge was right about the Tories coming third – although it has to be pointed out that the UK Independence Party (3.3%) did not do quite so well as Respect. As for the hapless “local boy”, Imran Hussain, his main attribute was that he was indeed “Ed Miliband’s candidate” – a Labour yes-man through and through. The rebellion against all three main parties was one of the reasons why he lost, and why the Labour vote slumped to 24.99%, compared to 45.26% at the 2010 general election.
However, there was a rebellion against something else too: the local patriarchal networks dominated by Muslim ‘community leaders’ and businessmen, who had previously delivered the British Asian vote to Labour. Indeed one of the biggest cheers at Respect’s 1,000-strong pre-election rally on March 25 was for Galloway’s call to break with what he called “village politics”: we must “shatter this mafioso grip”, he urged. Hussain, the deputy leader of Bradford council, epitomises such “village politics”. Indeed he inherited his seat in Toller ward from his father!
Labour’s video of its local pre-election rally features lots of speeches in Urdu – something that does not go down too well with the Asian youth, whose first language is English and who consider themselves British first and foremost. And it was the youth that fired the Respect campaign, which saw a high proportion of first-time voters inspired to go to the polls (including many who were not so young).
The pro-Galloway bandwagon developed spontaneously, with many parts of this overwhelmingly working class and often drab constituency coming alive thanks to the dozens of self-made banners, proclaiming, “Vote Galloway” or “Vote Respect”. A large part of the Labour Party local machine, including the election agent, switched to Respect. When Radio Four went to Manningham Labour Club the day after the election, it could only find one person who had voted Labour!
Although the constituency is only around 40% British Asian, the mass switch by Muslims from Labour to Respect and the spontaneous mobilisation of young Asians was undoubtedly a key factor. But Respect won the most votes in all six of the constituency’s wards – including the mostly white working class Clayton and Fairweather Green and the semi-rural Thornton and Allerton, where the Tories usually see off Labour in a two-horse race.
It is all the more remarkable that the local population rejected the patriarchal networks so firmly when you consider that it was those very patriarchal networks that first enabled Respect to get off the ground in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. It was largely due to them that comrade Galloway was elected in Bethnal Green and Bow in the 2005 general election and Respect became the official opposition to Labour with 12 councillors in 2006.
However, Respect had not suddenly appeared from nowhere in Bradford, which was one of the very few cities where the party still had a functioning branch – in fact much of its activity (such as it was before the by-election) had been in this constituency. In 2010 its two council candidates were both in Bradford West (they picked up only a couple of hundred votes each) and in that year’s general election Respect won a meagre 3%, just behind the British National Party candidate. The local branch had a few dozen, mainly Muslim members and had sometimes been able to put on large meetings.
However, ‘official optimism’ aside, in early March very few Respect comrades seriously thought Galloway would be able to pull it off. For example, when a public meeting was called to announce that he would be putting in his nomination, many thought the attendance would be 10-15. But over 50 turned up, even before the campaign had begun. Once it got going though, it really struck a chord in a city where unemployment has suddenly doubled and there was a mood of real anger.
Much of the media has put it all down to peculiar local circumstances combined with Galloway’s underhand campaigning methods – there was a large Muslim population, Galloway played up his own religious convictions (he is a Catholic) and stressed his opposition to the occupation of ‘Muslim countries’. While all that is true, it cannot explain the absolute majority won in a seat where only a minority is Muslim. In any case, it was Imran Hussain who appealed to British Asian voters on the basis that he was the only Muslim contesting; and it was this that Galloway disputed, when he claimed that as a god-fearing teetotaller he was more entitled to the votes of believers than his opponent.
At the March 25 pre-election rally Galloway made frequent religious references and asked the mainly Muslim audience how any believer thinking of backing Hussain would be able to “explain on the last day” why they voted for those who “invade other people’s countries” and slaughter thousands. But it would be foolish to put his victory all down to this factor – just as it is plain silly to allege that Galloway somehow “played the race card” by appealing to voters (both Asian and white) on the basis of solidarity with imperialism’s victims who happen to have dark skins.
On April 1, when Galloway addressed a crowd of over 2,000 at his victory rally in Infirmary Park, he stressed the two main themes of his campaign, which distinguished Respect from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. First, there was Respect’s opposition to austerity and cuts: “All three parties believe that ordinary working people should pay the price of the crisis”, not the “bankers and financiers who caused it”. Secondly, all three believe that “Britain has the right – the duty perhaps – to occupy other countries”, whereas Respect opposes “British imperial repression”. All this tapped into the mood of working class resentment. He also picked up huge support from students (the university is located in the constituency) for his opposition to tuition fees.
Many comrades, including myself, have assumed that Respect is not much longer for this world. Its leadership has been engaged in a lengthy debate about its future following Galloway’s dismal failure in Glasgow and the loss of most of its councillors. With the national council split between those who wanted to effectively wind up Respect as a political party in favour of the Respect Foundation ‘think tank’ and those who wanted to continue contesting elections ‘when the circumstances are right’, a compromise was arrived at whereby the Respect Foundation and Respect now exist side by side. Even though Galloway was in the latter camp, after Glasgow it seemed like just a matter of time before his NC opponents would win the day.
But Bradford has changed all that – at least in the short term. According to Clive Searle, Respect national secretary, the organisation had about 640 paid-up members before the by-election campaign. But in just two days following the election Respect received over 1,000 telephone enquiries and about the same number of emails. Almost 300 new people paid their membership subscriptions via the website out of a total of 700 who had downloaded the application form. While around 30% of these enquiries came from Bradford itself (where scores joined during the campaign), the rest are from all over Britain.
In other words, Respect has probably doubled in size virtually overnight. Its de facto leader is back in parliament, having dominated the news for several days, and it is quite likely it will win more council seats in May’s local elections – certainly in Bradford, where it will contest every ward. In Galloway’s words, “Respect is here to stay”.
However, that statement sits a little uneasily alongside another theme of the campaign: the “treason” committed by New Labour against the working class. At the pre-election rally Galloway said: “I am real Labour. I’m only not in Labour because Tony Blair expelled me.” In his victory speech following the count he condemned the cuts assault and warmongering of the three mainstream parties. However, while he did not give a toss about the Tories and Lib Dems, “I do care about the Labour Party.” He urged it to “turn away from the path of treason set by Tony Blair” and “be a Labour Party again”. It should “stop taking your supporters for granted”.
Comrade Galloway is a left Labourite and it is clear that Labour remains his natural home. You could easily envisage a situation where he was invited back into the fold – just as Ken Livingstone was quickly forgiven for standing as an independent for London mayor against the official Labour candidate in 2000. Blair had rigged the selection process against Livingstone, the obvious front-runner, who stood as an independent and was elected as mayor anyway. When it became clear that Livingstone would defeat Labour again if he stood once more as an independent in 2004, Blair swallowed his pride and readmitted him into the party.
So where does Galloway’s triumph leave the left? Socialist Worker agrees that “his win is a boost for the left in Britain. It underlines the potential for building grassroots opposition to Tory austerity” (‘How Respect won in Bradford West’, April 7). However, Alex Callinicos goes further in an article entitled ‘The key lessons of Bradford West’: “But the power of Galloway’s appeal is also a sign of the residual strength of Labourism. Labour and its counterparts have embraced neoliberalism. So it is quite inevitable that challenges from its left will often be most effective when couched in the political language of traditional social democracy.
“A radical and revolutionary left that plans to have a future has to start by acknowledging the achievement of Galloway and Respect. They have re-opened an electoral space to the left of Labour. We now have all to work together to ensure that this great second chance isn’t wasted.”
It is true that, in a sense, the win has “re-opened an electoral space to the left of Labour”. But if you think that left candidates contesting the May 3 local and Greater London Authority elections will automatically be able to ride on the back of Galloway’s success you are badly mistaken. While he has demonstrated that thousands can be won to vote for a leftwing platform, they will not just vote for anyone – even if their challenge is “couched in the political language of traditional social democracy”, as comrade Callinicos seems to be advising.
The Socialist Workers Party statement welcoming Galloway’s win ends in this way: “The Bradford West by-election should encourage all of us fighting David Cameron’s government of millionaires by strikes, protests and demonstrations – as well as those campaigning for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition at the May 3 elections” (www.swp.org.uk/statement/galloway-election-victory).
This wisely stops short of claiming that Tusc, with its smattering of SWP candidates, should be able to reap the benefit. The problem, as I am sure the SWP recognises, is the question of viability. People voted for Galloway in such large numbers because they believed he could win. Will they take the same view of Tusc? Of course not.
So how does the left become viable? By pretending to be Galloway-style old Labourites, as Callinicos implies? That has been tried and failed umpteen times. We need to end the crippling divisions that so debilitate our forces. However, neither the SWP, Socialist Party in England and Wales nor those leading any of the other left sects shows the slightest interest in seeking to overcome those divisions through organisational unity on a principled basis.
Unity for the sake of unity is not good enough. Usually it amounts to subordination to a section of the trade union bureaucracy or, failing that, to the politics of the trade union bureaucracy. Hence, we need to work out a clear Marxist programme to put before the working class, including in elections. It is only Marxism, not social democracy, that has answers – most of all at a time when the system of capital itself has been seen to fail by so many. We need to operate according to the principles of genuine democratic centralism, where competing tendencies are free to put forward their own ideas in public and openly fight to become the majority, while at the same time uniting their separate forces like a fist behind common actions.
In that way we can become a force to be reckoned with. We can become viable. In that way we might be able to “ensure that this great second chance isn’t wasted”.