Talking Politics

What Galloway’s victory means for British politics

The next few hours will see many political journalists dedicate themselves to mocking George Galloway. Videos will be shared of him acting like a cat pretending to lick milk from an actress' hands during Celebrity Big Brother. They will say he is a Stalinist, that he supports Middle East dictators and rarely bothers to attend parliament. They will be right about all these things. Galloway makes it easy to mock.

But this is not an appropriate response to Galloway's Bradford West by-election victory. Startling results like this baffle the political analysts, who try to explain it away with references to Galloway's rhetorical skills and tactical political genius. There's a certain irony to that, given that the picture contrasts unconvincingly with the monkey-fool they depict elsewhere.

Those personal qualities have some role in explaining what happened last night. A charismatic and eloquent candidate is a necessary but insufficient condition of achieving victory. What's needed is a political context in which their message resonates. Galloway's post-Labour political career is a testament to the possibility of allying young people, radicals and Muslims against the mainstream Westminster agenda.

The Respect party has often been described as an unholy alliance of Muslims and radical leftists. It was treated as a historical curiosity. With Iraq the dominant issue in British politics for several years, it seemed like a unique moment in which these two groups would share an agenda. The rest of the time they would naturally tear each other apart debating homosexuality or the role of women.

In truth the relationship is not as historically specific as is often claimed. In a slightly different context, Barack Obama showed that social issues do not prevent broad alliances between minority groups, leftists and idealistic young people. The Latin and African-American communities who voted for Obama are just as conservative when it comes to hot button topics like gay marriage as Muslim communities are here. In fact, those issues tend to have a more dominant role in the discourse across the Atlantic. But they can still both be galvanised to vote for one party — and not just based on the identity politic.

In certain constituencies, an alliance of young people and minorities — both groups utterly alienated from the Westminster system — can win elections.

The Bradford West result does not so much mark a rejection of Labour as a rejection of Westminster. For many voters (not just minorities and young people) Labour is barely distinguishable from the other two parties. In actual policy terms that assessment is not entirely unfair. Their differences are far less substantial than any of the parties would like to admit. In cultural terms, the viewpoint is entirely accurate.

Galloway's justification for his appalling parliamentary attendance records (634th out of 645 MPs in the 2005 session — just ahead of the prime minister, the various Speakers and deputy Speakers and five Sinn Fein members who refuse to attend) actually deserves to be heard rather than dismissed.

The Respect leader said he spent the time making countless public speeches, swapping parliamentary debates for engagement in the country. Of course, it is a patent rationalisation. Galloway did nothing for the people of Bethnal Green and Bow, none of the boring, unpublicised case work for constituents that truly committed MPs chisel away at while everyone barks about their over-generous holidays. Also, he was elected as an MP, not a travelling public speaker and agitator. But the kernel of truth in what he says is that Westminster's culture has become entirely separate from the country at large, the public increasingly alienated from its old traditions, public school taunts and stultifying party politics. There is space for a more on-the-ground approach to being an MP, in combination with the constituency and parliamentary work it demands.

Labour will want to write this off as a historical curiosity — and aren't there a lot of those when Galloway's around? The media will mock and disrespect him, as Jeremy Paxman did in 2005 when he singled out him, and him alone, as the one victorious MP he would not congratulate on air. That arrogant approach merely humiliates those who use it. It is sneering and condescending towards those who turned out to vote.

Labour's response is predictable, but the media's is much more damaging, because it puts political journalists in the same category as MPs — cut off, uninterested in the actual views of the public and as obsessed with the slippery tendencies of a small groups of centrist voters in Middle England as the party strategists are.

It is a particularly dangerous democratic failure to cultivate. Galloway has many flaws, including his highly questionable attitude to Arab dictators and his obsession with his own cult of personality over the interests of those he represents. But he is evidence that idealistic young people and minority groups can form a powerful political alliance against the establishment. And he shows how dangerous and foolish it is for Westminster to continue to operate in its own unliked, uncharismatic bubble. I doubt it's a lesson either politicians or journalists will heed.

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