Bombing Refugee camps, Hospitals, Ambulances, Children - is not self defence. Bombing Refugee camps, Hospitals, Ambulances, Children - is not self defence. Source: Alisdare Hickson - Flickr / cropped from original / share under license CC BY-SA 2.0

John Westmoreland argues that George Galloway’s victory in Rochdale is a victory for the pro-Palestine movement that we should celebrate, but not uncritically

The left should be celebrating the victory of George Galloway in the Rochdale by-election. Galloway stood in direct opposition to Tory and Labour support for Israeli genocide and spoke up, not just for Israel’s Palestinian victims, but also for the worldwide pro-Palestine, pro-humanitarian protesters.

US imperialism and its British poodle got a good kicking. The politicians who are hurting have supported the arming of Israel, and have lent their voices to the mass murder and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population in Gaza.

The result is a victory for internationalism and a defeat of imperialism, as far as it goes. The working-class voters in Rochdale were not fooled by the bleating of Establishment politicians about Muslim intimidation of MPs or the anti-Semitism accusations hurled at Galloway for calling out Israel’s crimes. Galloway gained a majority of 6,000 and the Independent, David Tully, got more votes than the Tories and Labour combined. Sunak and Starmer – joined at the hip over support for Israel – have lost.

Not only did Galloway wipe the floor with the Tories and Labour, but the voters of Rochdale rejected the hate politics of the populist right. Former Labour MP Simon Danczuk stood for the racist Reform UK party and came in sixth place with less than 2,000 votes. The scale of the defeat of the Establishment and what the victory of George Galloway signifies could not be clearer. 

Sunak’s war on our right to protest

The victory of George Galloway has prompted Rishi Sunak, whose candidate took just 3,731 votes against Galloway’s 12,335 votes, to make a speech outside Downing Street about the dangers of extremism. He has promised to clamp down on pro-Palestinian activity in schools and colleges, and to demand that the police clamp down on demonstrations.

Parliamentary democracy has not, of course, been imperilled by an election to the House of Commons. What has really shaken Sunak is the fact that the mainstream media’s reactionary drumbeat in support of Israel has failed to work. An electoral victory on this scale clearly goes beyond a reaction to the horror of Gaza. At the very least, it is a rejection of the major political parties, but must also include anger about the social destruction that the policy of austerity has brought.

Starmer is particularly worried, and it may well prompt challenges to his leadership. The weaponisation of anti-Semitism that he used to rout the Labour left has imprisoned him. The subservience of Labour to US foreign policy, and the invocation of anti-Semitism that defended it, is an unbreakable chain limiting Starmer’s room for manoeuvre. It led to him withdrawing Labour’s candidate in Rochdale and added to the attraction of Galloway’s campaign.

Galloway’s victory in Rochdale is bound to encourage more pro-Palestine candidates to stand, and although this is unlikely to stop a Labour victory in the general election, it will continue to embarrass Starmer. Those who have promised ‘No ceasefire, no vote’ will look past Labour and connect with the growing radical base that has had enough of the two-party story. 

Starmer’s cringing apology to the voters of Rochdale for withdrawing the Labour candidate rang hollow. His stance as a leader ‘prepared to make tough decisions’ looks pretty silly in the light of Labour’s Rochdale disaster.

The battle to come

It would be a mistake to endorse George Galloway’s victory uncritically for several reasons. George is a canny politician who is good on Palestine, but who has proved to be an opportunist too. He styles himself as politically radical but socially conservative. This gives cover to his persistent courting of popularity from the right as well as the left.

Galloway has stood on platforms with Nigel Farage, an extreme-right anti-Muslim racist. He has interviewed him on his radio talk show too, and this cannot be anything else but a deliberate ploy to boost his own credibility. He has also supported the Tories on the Scottish Referendum.

On top of that, Galloway has joined the anti-woke brigade enthusiastically, and this has given left cover to misogynists and racists. His anti-woke outbursts are always framed as speaking up for a working-class bewildered by political correctness. This is, at times, indistinguishable from the stance of right-wing populists. This surely goes beyond social conservatism and plays into the hands of the right.

The tempo and demands of the struggle ahead cannot be made to fit neatly into electoral politics. Socialists are not always popular, and we have to face the fact that on issues like racism, we are sometimes in the minority. We always have to argue a principled case. We have to say that oppression divides workers and is constantly weaponised by the ruling class to break solidarity and promote hatred and distrust. 

That is why Sunak greeted the Rochdale result, where the working class turned against the establishment, with his determination to launch a crusade against ‘Muslim extremists’. Make no mistake, everybody who has marched for Palestine helped to build the anti-establishment politics that saw Galloway triumph. And, whatever the Tories throw at us we will keep on marching until we get justice. 

In the final analysis, the Rochdale result is one we should definitely celebrate, but the fight against exploitation and oppression is another chapter.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.