George Galloway’s Bradford West victory, like the student revolt in December 2010, the inner city riots of August 2011, the Occupy movement in October was an event that no one predicted. Yet, as Galloway said in his acceptance speech, his election was the most sensational result in by-election history involving a left candidate. He polled 18,341 votes (55.9%) with a 10,140 majority. His Labour opponent Imran Hussain won a humiliating 8,201 votes (25%) although this was a triumph compared to the Lib Dems’ 1,505 votes (4.6%).
A bombshell hit British politics. Galloway, who had stood on an anti-cuts, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-establishment platform, had polled more votes than all the other candidates put together – and on a 50.8% turnout, good in by-election terms! Only 4 out of 10 voters voted for the three establishment parties. Labour slumped from 45.2% at the last election to just 24.9%. The Tories nosedived from 25% at the last election to just 8.4% and the Lib Dems, a coalition partner in Government, lost their deposit.
Like the August riots this was clearly an explosion waiting to happen. And it was generated by the same brooding discontent – particularly amongst young people who are alienated from the political establishment. It was a rejection, in a highly multi-cultural city, of 10 years of wars, occupations, Islamophobia, and attacks on the poorest in society. It followed Osborne’s blatant reward the rich budget and the cash for access scandal, which had dominated the media in the days before the vote. It also came shortly after Leanne Wood’s election as leader of Plaid Cymru, another sign that people are willing to support a radical alternative. Leanne describes herself as a socialist republican, a rare breed in mainstream politics in the British state.
There was a huge surge to Respect as the campaign connected with young people in particular, including large numbers of young women who are trapped in an increasingly divided and impoverished society. They are faced with deteriorating social conditions made worse by the Con Dem austerity drive, the de-industrialisation in the Northern cities, and the increasing north-south divide. Those who came forward in large numbers to fight the campaign so well have dealt the movement a great service and deserve our thanks and congratulations. Respect now has the task of winning these young people to its organisation for the long term.
The Respect result was a rejection, however, not only of the Con Dems and their policies, but Labour’s appalling timidity in fighting them. It was a vote of no confidence in their pathetic ‘too deep too fast’ approach and their inability to present a clear alternative to the economic crisis. In fact much of the Labour Party electoral machine in Bradford went over to Respect, at the start of the campaign, including the agent. When Radio 4 went to a Labour Club after the election they could only find one person who had voted Labour.
There is also a remarkable parallel to the Bradford result, at the European level, in the gains made by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche, in the presidential election in France. The Front de Gauche, which is backed by the French Communist Party, has shot up from 6% to over 15% in a few months, overtaking Marine Le Penn’s Front National in the process. It has transformed the election and has pushed Francois Hollande, the candidate of the Parti Socialist (PS) (the French equivalent of the Labour Party) to the left in the process.
Mélenchon, like Galloway, is a left social democratic ex-parliamentarian with a strong populist flair who broke with the PS. Although his platform is more comprehensive many of his demands echo Galloway’s campaign. He calls for a cap on the highest incomes, the dismantling of NATO, control of the banks, ecological planning, withdraw from Afghanistan, a referendum on the EU Treaty, and for the right of workers to take over factories faced with closure. He has been scathing and effective in his attacks on the far right.
George Galloway has been accused, by his detractors, of ‘playing the Muslim card’. And he has certainly enjoyed strong support amongst Muslim voters since he was expelled from the Labour Party for his opposition to the war drive. The facts, however, do not support this allegation. In the University ward of the constituency, for example, which is both multi-cultural and young, Respect polled a remarkable 83% of the vote. In fact Respect won a majority in all six wards in the constituency, including in the mostly white working class and semi-rural areas, which the Tories have often taken in the past.
Nor was his campaign based on conservative community networks which exist in some sections of immigrant communities. In fact an important part of the surge to Respect was a result of a rebellion by young Muslims against the local community and patriarchal networks which Labour had relied on for its four decades in office in the constituency. Galloway called publicly for an end to what he called village and mafia politics. Although these local factors are important they cannot in the end explain the scale of the victory which Respect achieved.
The lesson for the left from Bradford, therefore, could hardly be clearer: the space to the left of Labour had just got huge. An opportunity has opened up, in the teeth of a worsening economic crisis, for the left to offer a real alternative. This demonstrates, as with Mélenchon in France, that the left can make the running even at a time of severe economic crisis.
The opening of such a space raises, once again, the issue of a new broad, pluralist, party to the left of Labour – something which has been both urgent and possible in England for at least 10 years if the left had been prepared to put its collective weight behind it. This has already happened in a number of other European countries. The Red Green Alliance in Denmark and the Left Block in Portugal are examples of this.
There has already been a lively discussion of the implications of the Bradford result in many places – including on the blogs. Andrew Burgin responds to this on the Socialist Unity site by saying: “The problem with all these assessments of the Respect victory is that despite saying many correct things they all neglect to deal with what must be the central issue of the moment – that perhaps Respect itself can become the serious political party to the left of Labour that is so vital to the advance of the interests of the working class in Britain today.”
What Andrew ignores is that building such a party was something Respect singularly failed to do during the years when it was at the height of its support. George Galloway defeated Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow in the general election of June 2005. By May 2006 Respect had 18 local councillors including 13 in Tower Hamlets. Salma Yaqoob had built a mass base in south Birmingham and was elected to the council.
What was resisted at every stage by George Galloway and the SWP when they were jointly the leading forces in Respect, was building the organisation as a political party. They insisted on building it as a loose network or coalition focusing on elections in core seats. This was always problematic. It was hard to retain members, particularly independents. There was no internal political life. Little was done between elections. New members could be recruited during an election campaign but when it was over they would drift away.
After Respect was founded in January 2004 it had a membership of well over 5,000. Within two years, however, it had gone into decline. At the time of the split with the SWP in November 2007 it was already half that number. By the time of the Bradford campaign it was down to a few hundred members.
In fact a Respect conference had been called, just before the Bradford by-election, to discuss the future of Respect. The principal proposal from the leadership was to downgrade electoral work for the foreseeable future, and turn Respect into a Respect Foundation which could organise the occasional meeting or conference.
The resolution said the following: “The choice for Respect now is how we continue the work we have started. It is clear that under our current electoral system, with Labour in opposition, the opportunities to fight successful election campaigns are going to be few and far between. While we should keep open the possibility of fighting elections in the future, it can no longer be at the centre of our activity.”
It went on to call for: “Support the formation of the Respect Foundation as a non-party political body that is clearly in the anti-imperialist, anti-austerity camp while remaining above electoral politics”.
Bradford changed everything
Bradford changed all that. The conference was cancelled when the election was called. Today big opportunities have opened up for Respect, arguably even bigger than before. Its membership has reportedly doubled since the result and not just in Bradford. More will join. Respect will clearly expand its Bradford base by winning council seats next month. There are big opportunities, particularly in other Northern cities, in the next general election and in by elections if they occur.
The question is posed, however, as to how the most can be made of this opportunity, not just for Respect but for the wider movement. How it can contribute not only to tackling the crisis or working class representation but politically stiffen the fight against the cuts and the Con Dems. This should be an issue for the whole movement and not just for Respect, although its central role is obvious. Andrew Burgin argues that: “Surely nobody in their right mind will expect the party that achieved this to dissolve itself or stand aside because some on the left now see the possibility of building a new political organisation.”
It would certainly be ludicrous to suggest that Respect should dissolve itself or stand aside after such a result. What is posed, however, is whether the left in its various strands is prepared to be bold enough, and imaginative enough, to rise to the challenge, break from the past, and begin unite around this new situation; whether Respect is prepared to do the same and reach out to the rest of the left.
There will be others on the left standing candidates in May as well as Respect. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) will be standing a range of candidates. Socialist Resistance (SR) is calling for a vote for TUSC where we think they are the best left candidate standing. But TUSC is a top down organisation which refuses to adopt a democratic structure or reach out to other organisations on the left. SR has been refused membership, for example. A new party of whose members are doctors is being formed from the fight against the Lansley Bill. It is also planning to stand against Lib Dems in the general election and possibly in some council elections. It has already scored 15% in Tory test polling.
In the light of all this, we appeal to Respect to involve the wider movement in discussing the way forward by calling an open conference to discuss the Bradford result and how to maximise its impact in terms of working class representation. There is a lot to discuss. There is an urgent need to involve the unions in the way forward in terms of working class representation. Bob Crow has called for a new party of the left as a result of the Bradford result, which raises the issue of what kind of organisation is needed to meet the opportunities which have been presented.
At the level of local government the backlash that elected George Galloway in Bradford could see other anti-cuts councillors elected under various banners in different parts of the country. This raises the issue of how anti-austerity councillors could begin to work more effectively together. Green councillors in Brighton have unfortunately voted for cuts and nowhere is a stand being made at the local government level. The only exception of which we know is Barking and Dagenham councillor George Barratt who was expelled from the Labour Party for refusing to support a cuts budget. It is urgent to discuss how to turn this situation around. There are other questions looming. What would a group of Respect councillors in Bradford do if they are elected in May?
Finally there is the overarching issue of the internal democracy of broad left organisations. After four years in the Socialist Alliance and five years in Respect the main conclusion we in Socialist Resistance drew was that the internal democracy of such organisations at every level is a precondition for their long term development as broad and pluralist organisations. This can give them the ability to draw into their ranks, and hold for the for the long term, those who are breaking from the politics of sell-out, compromise, and betrayal.
These are some of the reasons why we think such an open conference, called without preconditions, is urgently needed and could act to develop collective discussion on the way forward and materially strengthen the struggle against the Con Dems.