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Britain: Again on the lessons of the Bradford election

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Further to our previous article, Galloway's victory puts spotlight on Labour’s failure to offer any alternative, Walter Leon provides more analysis of the recent by-election in Bradford, underlining the real shift to the left taking place among ordinary working class people and what this means for the Labour Party.

Poster in Bradford. Photo: Tim GreenPoster in Bradford. Photo: Tim GreenWith Labour councils up and down the country implementing Tory cuts and the Labour leadership refusing to oppose them nationally, frustration has built up amongst Labour supporters and voters. Understandably, this weak approach from the Labour leadership, coupled with the shock result in Bradford, has lead some within the movement to ask whether it is now possible to build a mass party to the left of Labour. We encountered similar feelings during the early stages of the recent sparks dispute (see Victory  in Sparks' dispute), when the initial inaction of the Unite leadership lead some workers to believe that a successful rank-and-file campaign could bypass the union altogether. Socialist Appeal supporters, who played a leading role in the successful dispute, argued against this and in the end the rank and file campaign pushed the Union tops towards supporting it, leading to the victory. It is against this backdrop, the relationship between class, party and leadership, that we examine the question.

Galloway's campaign

From the outset, it was clear that Galloway's programme was a long way to the left of the pitiful effort by the local Labour party, who opportunistically tried to win working-class Muslim votes (Muslims make up over 40% of the constituency) by drumming up the 'Asian' credentials of their candidate! They relied on the backing of the local clique of Asian elders who have dominated politics in Bradford for years and who have carved up the various positions between them – the so-called “Bradree” effect. They did not realise that many inside and outside the Bradford Asian community (especially the youth) had become tired of “Bradree” and all it stood for and were open to a more appealing and class-based message. This is a damning reply to right-wing commentators who claim Galloway's victory was solely based on appealing to parochial Muslim interests – this section of the community chose a white Scotsman over a local Muslim.

Galloway put out leaflets with the following demands:

  • We need an industrial policy which will bring jobs back to Bradford
  • We need to get rid of tuition fees
  • We need to get our boys back from Afghanistan
  • We need to stop the break up of the NHS
  • We need a new start in Bradford!

(Leaflet From George Galloway -Respect 2012 Bradford West By-Election)

Basically, this is a left-reformist programme that would not have been out of place in the Labour Party of the 1980s. There is no discussion on Galloway's website or in his literature of how such an 'industrial programme' would be carried out – would we simply appeal to the capitalists to invest, try to tax them, or would we actually expropriate them? – and no mention at all of socialism. However, whilst the programme's deficiencies mean it fails to answer the Tory and Labour arguments for cuts, we would nonetheless see it as a big step forward were the Labour Party to adopt such demands.

Of course, Galloway is a well-know figure on the left and not always for the right reasons. From his well-known support for Saddam Hussein to his television programme on Press TV (which is backed by the Iranian dictatorship), Galloway has long been a political opportunist. In the recent campaign, he even circulated a letter within the Muslim community boasting that he doesn't drink alcohol! It is fairly obvious what impression he was trying to make towards Muslim voters. His post-victory Tweet calling for a united Arab Palestine (!) was also symptomatic of his demagoguery. This opportunism we condemn strongly – the way to win Asian and Muslim youth is not to praise the regimes of Arab countries, nor to appeal to religious morality, but to put forward a fighting programme that addresses their needs. The success of the IMT in Pakistan, where we have taken a principled stand against imperialism and fundamentalism, attests to this fact. (See, for example, Pakistan: Orchestrated anarchy, and Impact of 31st congress of The Struggle in Pakistan)

What does this mean for Labour?

It is true that Galloway has always enjoyed particularly high levels of support amongst Asian Muslims, particularly youth – hence the reason for standing in Bethnal Green and now Bradford West. As Bradford Labour activist Sean Dolat comments on Labour List:

“The Asian vote in particular collapsed in that last week of campaigning (22nd till the 29th), and we were getting a bit shook up by it. I was in the office when two Asian female campaigners came in genuinely frightened to the point of paralysis by the experience they just had. They said how they canvassed Asian houses where voters there who had been Labour for decades were now voting Respect, and on a few occasions they witnessed having voters ripping up the [Labour candidate] Imran literature in front of them and throwing it to the floor. This was days before the election…

“On Twitter during this last week I’d check the #bradfordwest hash tag, and for every pro-Labour tweet there was easily 10 pro-Galloway ones, seemingly from young Asian Bradford constituents. Also my university friends were getting inundated with emails that had been forwarded from friends about voting for Respect, and someone on our campaign team was telling me how school kids were texting each other about who their brothers and sisters should vote for (Galloway). And the day after the Sunday Politics hustings I had 3 people on the doorstep in one round who told me that their friends told them to watch the show to watch Imran get bested, and my Asian friends in particular were talking to me about this interview too, and that they heard from their friends. We’d pass kids in the street who would shout Galloway at us all the time. Their campaign was so much better organised and so much more enthused, it was quite unreal, I’ve never witnessed anything like this in British politics, and I really don’t say that lightly. The communication between activists on the Galloway side was phenomenal.”(Bradford West: A view from the ground)

Contrast this vibrant campaign with what Labour offered, in Dolat’s words, “A local candidate who was perceived as a puppet and weak and who got his candidacy through Bradree nepotism rather than merit.” The issue of local Labour parties dominated by cliques of local businessmen is common across many cities, and repels the youth who should actually be able to find a home in it.

So, why does Galloway enjoy such support amongst this section of the population? Young Muslims are one of the most down-trodden sections of the working class, with high levels of unemployment, and constantly facing unpleasant racist undertones across the media. We submit that Galloway’s popularity with this group has more to do with his consistent opposition to the imperialist wars in the Middle-East, and highlighting of the fact that young Muslims have been used as scapegoats during the ‘war on terror’, than with his opportunistic pandering to Islamic morality (or anything else).

But Galloway’s appeal was not limited to young Muslims – he won support across all sections of the population, “including those areas where some voters, only a few years ago, had succumbed to the siren calls of the racists and fascists.” (This was Bradford's version of the riots) Dolat continues:

“[Labour’s] literature was solely focused on the Tories and national issues, and not on Galloway and local issues, which was key. Galloway picked on local issues like ‘The hole in ground’ which was meant to be a Westfield in the city centre, our Odeon building which is in ruins and Bradford’s 30 year+ industrial decline. All 3 of which weren’t Labours fault, the first being the Tory-Liberal coalition on the council, the Odeon being private, and the industrial decline happened in the 1980s under Thatcher. Though these 3 things were on all the Respect literature, we produced no counter leaflets whatsoever.”

So the Labour campaign didn’t bother to mention any of the issues facing the working-class population of the city! Given the Labour candidate's record on the council we are not surprised. Galloway ran, in his own words, as the 'real Labour' candidate. He put forward demands that the Labour campaign should have been raising. When millions of workers and youth are facing a bleak future at the hands of the Tories and their City of London paymasters, people are looking for someone who will put forward a militant programme. It is also worth noting that the most left-wing Labour MPs, such as John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, actually increased their majorities in the last election. This is a brilliant riposte to the Labour right-wing, who dishonestly claim that Labour must accept cuts and austerity to make itself electable.

Galloway's "party," Respect, has enjoyed moderate support in certain areas for a period, such as Tower Hamlets, but has never succeeded in raising its profile nationally. Whilst its programme is undoubtedly weak, the real reason for this is the deep roots the Labour Party has sunk in the British working class. Respect's success, such as it is, is largely down to Galloway himself, an ex-Labour MP with something of a base of support – without him, they would slip completely into obscurity.

It is interesting how the focus of Galloway's campaign has been to put demands on Labour. As he writes in The Guardian:

"Labour's opposition in parliament is feeble to the point of paralysis, because so many share so much of the grim orthodoxy that has plunged the world into the great recession...

"Labour, above all, should learn this rude lesson. It cannot continue on the disastrous path set by Tony Blair, of war and occupation abroad and inequality at home. That's what lay behind the loss of a "safe seat", held for 38 years, just as the party lost London's East End in 2005." (ibid.)

The whole tone of Galloway's approach recognises the link the Labour Party has with the class as a whole. Len McCluskey's recent interventions (see Unite general secretary slams Miliband’s capitulation to ‘discredited Blairism’) reveal the pressure the union leaderships are coming under from the rank-and-file. McCluskey actually puts forward the correct position: the rank-and-file in the unions should become active in the Labour Party and reclaim it from the New Labour carpetbaggers that dominate the leadership. Whilst there is historical precedent for the liquidation of a workers’ party into the bosses' (it happened in Italy with the Democratic Party), Blair's attempts to do the same in Britain by breaking the union link ultimately failed.

Labour Party and the election

Since the Tories came to power, more than sixty thousand people have joined the Labour Party. London Young Labour has broken with the out-and-out Blarites who dominated it only a year ago and the Ken Livingstone campaign has attracted a small layer of young people, including school-students. We are seeing the very early beginnings of the class moving into the party but this process is being cut across by the wretchedness of the Parliamentary Labour Party, who represent the past period of Blairism. This explains Ed Miliband's rapid shift back to the right after he was elected party leader – despite enjoying support amongst the rank-and-file (in particular the Trade Union members), he was completely isolated within the PLP and caved in. (For a fuller discussion of the way the right keeps a grip on the PLP despite its lack of any support, see "Progress" makes no progress)

This right-wing dominance of the PLP is undoubtedly holding the process back and may mean Labour doesn't win the next election. However, the right cannot defy gravity forever: they have no social base, suspended as they are by inertia alone, like a cartoon character who charges off a cliff and keeps running because he doesn't look down. The right wing can have such a base in a period where it is possible to negotiate reforms from the capitalists, or at least manage decline in a less-painful fashion for the workers. The ‘social peace’ of the 1960s, based on the post-war economic boom, and the New Labour period of the late 1990s and early 2000s, are examples of such periods. But the depth of this crisis of capitalism means the bosses’ government is forced to cut violently to try and keep the system afloat – there is no room for the reforms of the past. The government’s feeble pension offer, and lack of rank-and-file support for the supine union leaders’ acquiescence to it, highlights this. (See, for example, NHS Pension Campaign)

At some stage, the pressure of new layers entering the party will force the selection of a new layer of MPs, just as the pressure in the unions forced the removal of the old Barons like Ken Jackson over the last decade, and has pushed figures like McCluskey to the left. As we explain in Socialist Appeal:

“As the Marxist tendency has explained many times, the working class will take the line of least resistance and when it moves politically it will move towards its traditional mass organisations. When this happens, all those groups on the fringes of the movement will be left high and dry. The main struggle for the future of society will be fought within the Labour Party and the trade unions. On the basis of events, the right wing will be squeezed out and the left will be in the ascendency. It is the task of Marxism to “patiently explain” and fertilise this left wing with revolutionary ideas. Before the ideas of scientific socialism can conquer the broad mass of the working class, they need to politically conquer the mass organisations. The mistakes and isolation of the Marxists in the past, due mainly to their sectarianism, has been both a tragedy and a farce. We need to learn from history and understand that there is no short cut to the masses” (Marxism and the Labour Party – Some important lessons for today)

Galloway's victory shows one thing – that a fighting programme is a winning programme. His victory will serve to shake up the base in the Labour Party and should inspire us to fight for socialist policies within it. It is a crushing blow to the arguments of the right wing, whose policies of surrender have allowed the Tories to hammer workers virtually unopposed. It's time we got our party back.

 Source: Socialist Appeal (Britain)

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