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Artillery Row

Britain’s first postmodern election

What Galloway’s victory really tells us about Britain

George Galloway has romped to victory in Rochdale, securing 12,000 votes and  overturning a huge Labour majority in one of the most chaotic and surreal by-elections of all time. Things got weird. After the death of Labour incumbent Tony Lloyd, local councillor Azhar Ali was selected. But soon thereafter, it emerged he had made remarks in which he suggested Israel was behind the October 7th attacks, and that Jews controlled the media. Labour was forced to drop Ali, but he persevered with his campaign anyway. Meanwhile the Green candidate was also dropped by his party following revelations he had made controversial statements, but this time of an Islamophobic nature.

George Galloway wasn’t even the only controversial former Labour MP in the race – opposing him on the right was Simon Danczuk, who had represented Rochdale for Labour until it emerged he’d been exchanging explicit messages with a 17 year old girl, and was deselected at the next election. He has predictably floundered, and in an election that saw a lot of ugliness, was singled out for serious death threats due to his pro-Israel stance.

The most “normal” politician in the whole election was an independent – local vehicle repair shop owner David Tully, who ran on a platform of reopening a maternity ward and cracking down on speeding, and ended up finishing second, getting more votes than the Labour and Conservative parties combined.

It was something far more ambiguous and unsettled — our first truly postmodern election

Finally, there was George. What can be said about him that a thousand sketchwriters haven’t said before? He’s a shamelessly flamboyant personality, who makes Boris seem shy and stolid. He’s a political chameleon, who regularly addresses British Muslims in the manner of an especially militant religious scholar, yet can play the old Labour tunes on command to white working class audiences. The video of his pretending to be a cat on Celebrity Big Brother is seared on the collective eyeballs of the nation. Once a Labour rising star, he fell out with the party in spectacular fashion over the Iraq War, founding the Respect Party to challenge Labour from the left. He fell out with them too, going on to found another party, under whose banner he took Rochdale – the British Workers Party.

Righteous leftie fury at neocolonial wars soon morphed into something much more ambiguous. Nobody can quite seem to determine if Galloway — who was raised a Catholic — is now a loyal follower of the Prophet. He has married a Muslim woman, twice, in traditional Islamic ceremonies, and certainly speaks as if he were a Muslim, much to the amused horror of the press. He himself denies formally converting, claiming his faith is a private matter. Adding to the general weirdness, Nick Griffin of the BNP endorsed his candidacy – much to Galloway’s own chagrin. 

It was always very easy to parody Galloway, and this the British media duly did, relentlessly, for over 20 years. But yet again he has pushed his way back into parliament, and left centrist commentators like Ian Dunt desperately and implausibly claiming he “doesn’t speak for Muslims”. Ian’s entitled to his view, but thousands of Muslims have elected Galloway to speak on their behalf, and he will re-enter parliament as Rochdale’s representative. 

Depending on your framing, this was either a deserved blow struck against the vile revisionists of the Labour party by the sub-altern, acting in solidarity with Palestine; or, alternately, the first step in a sinister Islamist project sure to culminate in St Paul’s being turned into a mosque and M&S stocking niqabs. 

They are both, in their different ways, oddly consoling thoughts. The idea that elections, and indeed world events, are driven by powerfully contrasting civilisational visions fighting for supremacy may conjure fears, but it provides the deep consolation of a sense of meaning and teleology; that sincerely held convictions and worldviews, rather than chaotic passions and passive mobs, are the drivers of history. 

But what happened in Rochdale was by no means so straightforward. It was something far more ambiguous and unsettled — our first truly postmodern election. Centrist journalists are desperately spinning the catastrophic result for Labour as an anomaly, a never-to-be-repeated set of circumstances and events (an MP dead from cancer, a war in Gaza, a 30% Muslim electorate, a Labour candidate disowned by his own party, the unique charisma of Galloway, and a deeply unpopular Tory party). You can see their point, but at the same time, this is to mistake cause and effect. Of course, Galloway only won because of these circumstances, but they only came about because of deep systematic failures and tensions in British politics.

Galloway is a left populist who disrupts the staid client politics of many Labour-dominated Muslim communities

Galloway certainly knows as much — and has already pulled off the same trick twice. Remember, this is now the third time he has ousted Labour from a constituency, using his ability to mobilise the Muslim vote, repeating in Rochdale the victories he achieved in Bethnal Green and Bradford West. All three of the Labour candidates he has trampled into the ground have been non-white, and on the left of the party. Two were Muslims who shared much of Galloway’s views on Western foreign policy and Palestine. But time and time again, huge numbers of Muslim voters chose the forceful, cheeky Scot over candidates of the same ethnicity and faith. Despite his ambiguous religiosity, Galloway was able to beat Imran Hussain in Bradford, telling voters “I’m a better Pakistani than he [Mr Hussain] will ever be. God knows who’s a Muslim and who is not. And a man that’s never out of the pub shouldn’t be going around telling people you should vote for him because he’s a Muslim.” 

Galloway’s continual success is regularly denounced as crudely sectarian, and he’s certainly not shy about denouncing Israel, and has cheerfully defended groups like Hezbollah as legitimate. These views are unpleasant, but unexceptional – not only amongst many Muslims, but equally the British far left of which he has been a member since his teens. Support for the IRA was a feature of his childhood politics, absorbed from his Irish Nationalist mother, and his sympathy for Muslim liberation struggles (as he sees them) flowed naturally from them. 

This overlap between old school left and Islamic religious sentiment is more than a feature of Galloway’s biography, but is an intersection at play in British Muslim communities themselves. Though profound, idealistic religious solidarity is very real, and Galloway plays to it skillfully, it’s far from the only motivating factor. Many more secularised muslims, a lot of them younger, have drifted away from anything resembling conservative Islam, but still share the same geopolitical sympathies, which are reinforced by the left liberal political spaces in which young people in cities like Leeds, Manchester and London move. Neither radical theocrats, nor the cheerfully integrated “good Muslims” of fond Blairite fantasy, they instead participate in a form of Muslim identity politics. Islamism is the preserve of a minority, and lurks on the boundaries of this kind of identitarianism, recruiting not pious and observant Muslims, but more typically deracinated young men who have absorbed communal anger about the treatment of Muslims abroad. 

Galloway’s appeal becomes clearer once rightwing fantasies of budding Caliphates and “no-go areas” are swept aside, and this more hybrid and performative reality is recognised. Whilst Labour, with often greater cynicism, plays with Muslim identitarianism, Galloway is a left populist who disrupts the staid client politics of many Labour-dominated Muslim communities. In the 2012 Bradford West byelection Galloway set himself against the baradari system, by which he claimed the Pakistani Muslim vote was sewn up. Galloway bypassed the “community leader” approach beloved of the British left, reaching out directly to voters, and bringing Muslim women into his campaign. He bluntly told Muslim men to listen to their wives and an army of hijab-wearing campaigners hammered on doors on his behalf. Though frequently accused of links with fundamentalist Muslim groups, he’s also been the target of death threats from Islamists for his encouragement of Muslim participation in the British political process. 

Nor are his views what one would expect of a secret Islamist determined to destroy the West, or even just a leftie trying to pander to the Muslim vote. In the latest election, he promised an end to grooming gangs “if he had to arrest them himself”, and has defended the deportation of asylum seekers. According to Galloway: “Mass immigration beggars the countries that lose the immigrants and drives down wages and deleteriously affects the ability of the people of all colours in the countries that immigrants arrive in.”

It is white liberal elites who have driven anti-Western, anti-British, and anti-Christian laws, policies and sentiments

Galloway’s politics — simultaneously religious, patriotic, and socialist — were once fully coherent in the context of places like working class Scotland. That world has largely vanished, but in the British Muslim community Galloway has found a viable alternative. As with the homegrown version of this politics, it is at its worst nastily fundamentalist and sectarian. The grim degeneration of British politics into a series of ethno-cultural identities and tribes is a miserable prospect. That’s one reading of Galloway’s project, but it could, in the hands of a more sane political leader, be something better — the authentic engagement of Muslim voters with democracy, a moving beyond the fakery of progressive secularism, and a conservative, patriotic British Islam. 

The sadness and frustration of Rochdale, for me, was the fervour with which Muslims will stand up for not only their own interests, but those of Muslims 2000 miles away. When Galloway invoked the ummah, he was appealing to an idea of moral and religious community that post-Christian Britain has decisively lost. By contrast, white working class Rochdale had no community of this kind, even locally, let alone globally, capable of defending its daughters from untold abuse, or punishing the men who preyed upon them. I find myself exceptionally tired of a right wing commentariat that will howl about Islamism when Muslims demonstrate a robust cultural solidarity with one another.

It is not Muslims who are opening British borders, or looking the other way when gangs prey upon working class girls. It is not even Muslims who are allowing Islamist fundamentalists to freely preach on our streets. It is white liberal elites who have driven anti-Western, anti-British, and anti-Christian laws, policies and sentiments in this country. Contra the noisy rhetoric of Lee Anderson, Muslim politicians of the left like Sadiq Khan and Humza Yousaf are not Islamists, but good secular progressives, whose antipathy to traditional British culture and identity is the surest mark of their thorough integration into the native elite. Rather than worrying about the tribal loyalties of British Muslims, we should be more worried about our own, damning lack of shared loves and loyalties.

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