OPINION - Are we there yet? British politics may still have some way to go before it reaches rock bottom

(John Walton/PA) (PA Wire)
(John Walton/PA) (PA Wire)

'Rock bottom' confers a powerful elixir. Recovering alcoholics often point to the day, the hour, the drink that led them to make a change. For others, it is the simple reassurance that no matter how difficult the times, there is something to be said for them no longer getting worse. I understand a political party once even adopted a song that suggested things could only get, well, never mind.

Unfortunately, a cursory glance at last night's events serves as a reminder that only a fool would declare that British politics and our public discourse have hit rock bottom. It may not do so for some time.

George Galloway, a man who has made a living hitching his wagon to the politics of division, has been elected to parliament following the Rochdale by-election. This is his third political party and fourth seat, though Galloway has only one constituency: himself.

His victory was only made possible by an implosion in Labour, forced to withdraw support from its candidate, Azhar Ali, after it emerged he had engaged in antisemitic conspiracy theories at a party meeting.

At roughly the same time as votes were being counted in Rochdale, a council meeting in Newham had to be halted when the borough’s only Jewish councillor, Joshua Garfield, was subjected to boos and hisses by pro-Palestinian activists in the public gallery during a debate on the budget.

As our political correspondent Rachael Burford reports, it was alleged that those making noises were supporters of Newham Independents, the opposition group on the council. The party is led by former Labour member Mehmood Mirza, who was suspended by the party in 2020 after being accused of antisemitism.

Of course, it was only last weekend that former Tory deputy chair, Lee Anderson, launched an Islamophobic attack on Sadiq Khan, when he suggested that Islamists had “got control of Khan” and “control of London”. The response of the Conservative Party was underwhelming at best. Anderson lost the whip while the prime minister called his comments "wrong", but neither he nor Susan Hall, writing in the Standard on Monday, specifically called them Islamophobic.

Speaking of whom, on Saturday the mayor is set to address Labour’s London conference during which, as our City Hall editor Ross Lydall reports, he will describe Hall as the “most divisive candidate the Tories have ever put up in London” in what Ross describes as a dramatic escalation of the battle for City Hall.

Meanwhile, MPs are being threatened and millions are being spent on additional security, anti-Jewish hate incidents are at record highs while Islamophobic attacks have surged with Muslim women bearing the brunt. In this context, and with the thermometer registering ever higher numbers, the return of Galloway to parliament is scarcely what the doctor ordered.

It's not always obvious when rock bottom has been hit. Perhaps we won't know until, or even if, things begin to get better. As for now, I keep returning to – of all things – a 1959 lecture by the great American theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, entitled: There's plenty of room at the bottom. He was talking about atoms, of course, but I always inferred a broader meaning.

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