Don't Bomb Syria - George Galloway Don't Bomb Syria - George Galloway. Source: Garry Knight - Flickr / cropped form original / picture in public domain

As the politicians and pundits unite against Galloway’s insurgent campaign, Kevin Ovenden asks how can the movement and socialists advance

It’s started already before a single vote is counted in Rochdale.

The centre-left broadcaster Jon Sopel (a bitter opponent of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership) has seized upon the has-been fascist Nick Griffin calling on people in Rochdale to vote for George Galloway.

Griffin apparently said it would give a kick to the political system. He’s hardly the only one to observe that truth. It’s almost universally held. Sopel says that it shows the far left and far right have more in common than divides them. Expect the same from Starmer-Labour and the political centre come Friday.

It is just what we have been told for over a decade from the liberal centre across Europe. It’s what we also heard ludicrously when the Nazi BNP opportunistically came out against the Iraq War in 2003. Or when French fascists said they opposed McDonalds ‘just like’ the militant environmental movement.

Of course Griffin was feebly trying to grandstand and his call, unheard in Rochdale, was rebuffed by the Galloway campaign. It does show, however, that the radical right and racist Reform Party may not have done as well as it hoped. Griffin would normally back them.

Highly conflicted

There’s going to be more of this stuff if George Galloway wins in Rochdale. So it is worth getting some things clear in advance if the anti-capitalist left is not to be buffeted, irrelevant or making bad mistakes in what is set to be a highly conflicted political situation.

A measure of the positive impact of a George Galloway victory in Rochdale will be the absolute convergence denouncing it by the fake, anti-elitist far right with the supposedly anti-extremist, elitist political centre. All kicking Muslims in the face and backing Israel’s slaughter in Gaza.

George Galloway sums up his political thrust as ‘socially conservative and economically radical’. I think that is a mistaken perspective for the radical left and labour movement, though it is far from unique. George is not of the far left and has made a point of emphasising that for over a decade.

His actual political position and perspective is an evolution from the left popular insurgency of a decade ago. It is an answer to the crisis of that insurgency. That is not restricted to the collapse of Corbynism: see Die Linke in Germany, Podemos in Spain… and above all else, Syriza in Greece.

But as with populist left politician Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany, it is a wrong answer for the left and even in its own terms for the best that her perspective might achieve.

Adapting to conservative and reactionary mass thinking on some issues does not help win support away from the populist right. It provides a bridge from your support to the right more than it may temporarily neutralise some reactionary right-wing attacks electorally.

True social solidarity

It is more than possible to reject liberal-capitalist absurdities on tokenistic social policy without declaring for social conservatism. That is actually what socialism and the liberatory perspective at its heart are about.

We won’t bring back the good things about a sense of community solidarity that has been ripped apart by capitalism in the neoliberal era by harking back to the bad things – reactionary and restrictive social norms that also attended what is now a distant social reality for most people. Millions are not going to ‘respect the bobby on the beat’ for very good reasons.

We have to go forward to create a true sense of social solidarity and on the basis of the fundamental transformation of economic and social life. That’s how you conserve society against the ravages of the capitalist market – and it means busting the restrictions of ‘social conservatism’. Capitalists and their politicians deploy those now as much as they do liberal identitarianism.

Socialist politics are not a variety of either liberalism or conservatism, both of which have billionaire backers. Socialists do not, and they stand independently against both.
Collective struggles against reactionary social norms and specific oppression are a part of doing so. What is true of racism, is true of women’s and other oppressions.

All that, put more abstractly, is a matter of serious debate and proof in practice of which politics advances the movement of working people and of the oppressed and which does not. It is not about ideological denunciation. That usually rises when the left and social movements are falling.

Enabling racist right

A mistaken answer to a real problem does not absolve the left of having to confront the reasons for our failures. We are talking serious failure.

It is certainly not a reason to join the extreme centre in smears of ‘fascist’ or ‘far-right adjacent’ or ‘two peas in the same pod’ against political figures who are despised by the growing far-right in Britain.

The people who have enabled the racist right in the last week are Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer, and Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle. They are not George Galloway or his campaign in Rochdale. The lie that the radical left and radical right are twins, with the left most often held to be worse, is applied to all of us who reject the ‘beyond left and right’ populist approach. Attacking those who do hold that approach, with the false arguments of the extreme centre, will not help anyone on the left.

There are many kinds of ‘populist’ approaches that seek to evade or go beyond the left/right axis. Saying they are all ‘fascist’ because some fascists have used that very general formulation is primitive and stupid. Tony Blair spoke of a Third Way at just the time the collapse of the USSR was hailed as transcending old left/right divides in politics. ‘Third Way’ had been the phrasing of a major strand of European fascism.

We shall see in less than 24 hours. But if there is a victory for George Galloway in Rochdale it will be received by friends and enemies of the Palestinians alike as a victory for Gaza against the English political establishment, and a blow against the state of Israel.

For that reason, alone, the more people who vote for him today, the better.

Despite George’s declaration and intention of transcending left/right divides, it will also be seen as a victory for the left. We know that because of attacks already the anti-systemic left is in league with the radical right. For the preposterous swivel-eyed Liz Truss the anti-systemic left are the same as ‘violent Islamists’.

Bounced

Truss is like some Marine Le Pen or Giorgia Meloni who was bounced repeatedly on her head as a baby.

A Galloway election victory will provide a boost for all the left that is attuned to mass developments and not trapped in purist insularity, no matter our disagreements with and criticisms of his politics and orientation. At the same time, it will open up, or ought to, a serious debate about how we go forward and with the aim of doing better than previously.

It may be only a byelection in the North of England, but this will be part of the European-wide and intensifying debate about strategy and politics for the anti-capitalist and radical left. This is taking place in the wake of the major defeats of most of the formations that became the big focus for the movements emerging since the post-2008 global crisis or earlier this century.

It is going to be a conflicted process in which the left can strengthen – so long as we conduct ourselves seriously, with a firm demarcation from the right and centre. It should be a considered a sin to borrow right-wing arguments against others on the left rather than make our own case.

That is something George and those pursuing a kind of populist ‘common-sense’ approach will also have to confront. This is a general dilemma and discussion.

In a move that did him no favours, Galloway appeared with Nigel Farage eight years ago during the referendum campaign. Is Farage going to welcome a ‘people against the elite’ upset in Rochdale tomorrow?

Not on your life. He is fulminating at ‘Islamists”’(he means Muslims) destroying British democracy and looking to take over the country, supposedly. Farage will smear Rochdale as a hotbed of ‘Islamism’ and will reheat the disgusting efforts by the far and fascist right to turn the sexual predation of girls falsely into racial predation. That is to turn the misogynistic and anti-working-class culture of the police and authorities into supposed ‘political correctness gone mad’.

The pseudo-anti-elitist right, funded by billionaires, will not only not welcome a victory by George Galloway in Rochdale. On account of anti-Muslim racism, they will cleave on this question to the elites and establishment overall against an advance by someone they traduce as a violent pro-Muslim fundamentalist.

Left right divide

There is not only the popular-elite axis in politics. There is also the left-right. That divide burns bright in Britain when it comes to Gaza, incendiary attacks on the Muslim minorities, and democracy under threat. That is why right-wing fake populism cannot reconcile with an MP winning in Rochdale on strong pro-Palestine and anti-Islamophobic commitments. 

Should the establishment suffer a well-deserved blow via a George Galloway victory tonight, it will open up all sorts of conflicting possibilities. Whether those who favour an effective left and an advance of the movements win out depends in part on how we, especially on the anti-capitalist and radical left, make the most of those possibilities.

It will mean being actually political. That is dealing with real political developments. As they are and not how ideologically we should like them to be. That is politics – which is more than agitational activity over here and propaganda over there. It will mean intelligence not dogma. Proper discussion and debate, not defensive denunciation. It will mean advancing arguments on the basis of building the mass movements and not allowing what may sometimes be deep differences to undermine their unity.

In so doing, deepening popular understanding and collective action among the mass of people. That is millions, not thousands or even tens of thousands.  

All of that is going to require a level of maturity and humility.

Before you go

If you liked this article, please consider getting involved. Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation working to build the movements of resistance and socialist ideas. Please join us and help make change happen.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.