Lindsey German on the Batley and Spen byelection and its fallout
Labour’s right is on the offensive after the Batley and Spen byelection. And its main targets are Britain’s Muslim community, branded with no evidence whatever as antisemites and homophobes, and Labour’s left, accused of treachery in wanting the party to lose the election which would then have led to a leadership challenge. This offensive is designed partly to cover up Labour’s continued failings electorally. Despite Keir Starmer hailing the win by Kim Leadbeater as a great victory, it demonstrated a big fall in support for Labour on 2017 and 2019. It also triggered a set of arguments about the Muslim community which will only help foment racism and division.
It became clear early on in the campaign – and following on from defeats in Hartlepool and the local elections in May – that this wasn’t going to be a simple Tory-Labour fight in a so called ‘red wall’ seat. The election coincided with a huge movement in solidarity with Palestine that led to many demonstrations across the country, and it was this upsurge that led to George Galloway standing and to the acknowledgement that Labour was haemorrhaging votes over the issue – and to a lesser extent over Kashmir.
None of that is surprising. Starmer has gone out of his way to insult the Muslim community – refusing to go to an iftar during Ramadan because one of the other guests supported BDS on Israel, pandering to right wing Indian nationalism on Kashmir, and repeatedly linking pro-Palestine sentiment with antisemitism. Indeed an unnamed spokesperson told a journalist that Muslim voters were deserting Labour because Starmer was taking a tough line on antisemitism, thus libelling not just Muslims but the pro-Palestine left as well.
Galloway used the issue to drive a wedge into the Labour vote and this was the basis of his candidacy taking 22% of the vote which is a real achievement from a standing start, and which will mostly have been from traditional Labour voters. It shows how disaffected many of them are with Labour. Galloway mixed what were undeniably correct approaches to some issues with unacceptable ones on sexual politics. His comments on LGBT have been completely regressive and should be condemned but it would be extremely foolish in my view to see his relative success as being mainly about these issues.
I have campaigned in a number of elections with George Galloway, back in 2004 and 2005. When we founded Respect then it was on major international issues, especially in opposition to the Iraq war, but also on domestic ones against the neoliberal Blair government. When I stood in West Ham in the 2005 election (winning 20% of the vote and achieving one of the four biggest swings in any post-war elections) we raised housing, privatisations, trade union rights, property development and many other issues. There was no homophobia in the campaign and Galloway was proud of his Stonewall award for supporting equal marriage.
His development in recent years has gone in a different and more reactionary direction, including calling for a Tory vote in Scotland. But we should not assume this is the basis on which he gets his votes. He is a very good campaigner who taps into widespread discontent with the major parties and uses his own notoriety to say that he will deliver for them. I saw him talking in Batley and Spen saying that he would paint a faded zebra crossing himself if he got elected. People will notice if he gets elected, he promises, and that usually turns out to be true.
The Muslim communities across Britain have overwhelmingly been Labour voters. They are in their large majority working class, living in some of the poorest housing and doing some of the least rewarded work. By most standards of inequality they suffer. So they have the same concerns as other working-class people and feel they have been let down and ignored by Labour for a very long time now, not just over Iraq and Palestine. They also know that they live in a deeply Islamophobic society which forces them into Prevent programmes and treats them as extremists and terrorists simply for supporting certain causes or for dressing and behaving in certain ways.
Labour’s attempt to foment that Islamophobia is going to do great damage. Galloway’s comments are being used to brand the whole Muslim community as hostile to LGBT rights. Yet it is no more so than any other section of the community and contains within it the full range of political and social opinions. Not to understand this shows an ignorance bordering on racism.
Yet even some on the left who oppose Starmer adopt the stereotypical view of Muslims as violent extremists on the one hand or passive victims of patriarchy on the other. It is a travesty of the truth. Bigotry and right-wing views should be opposed but we might perhaps look elsewhere for that than the Muslims in Batley. We might perhaps start with Starmer’s own nauseating flag waving and patriotism aimed at winning over Tory voters in the ‘red wall’ seats, or the claim from one of his aides that they were happy to lose Muslim votes as bigoted and antisemitic, while they were gaining Tory ones.
We need to be aware of what is going on here. Labour’s right used two key issues to roll back Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity in the 2017 election (now never mentioned by any political commentator). Those were Brexit and antisemitism. The Brexit vote was branded as completely reactionary and little Englander whereas it was in reality a mixture of different ideas (a bit like the Galloway vote, I suspect). And the left’s pride in its anti-racism was turned against it through the determination to define Palestine solidarity as antisemitic.
The two issues were key to destroying Corbyn’s leadership. And Labour’s éminence grise Peter Mandelson is using antisemitism and LGBT issues to attack the left once again. This is going to go on and on. People like Owen Jones certainly didn’t want Galloway to win, and will be pleased as we all should be that the Tories were defeated and the fascists humiliated. But there will be demands for loyalty tests (ironic when you look at the free ride Starmer still has compared with Corbyn’s treatment), suspensions, and a clampdown on the left at conference in September.
The war on the left and on Muslims will continue from Labour’s right because the byelection only highlights the party’s weaknesses which are not going to be overcome. Indeed, by allowing the hapless leader to stay on at least till the next electoral test it will only further increase Labour’s internal tensions. And there is little sign from the result that Labour is picking up the votes it needs to come anywhere close to forming a government. The actual result can hardly be seen as a success for Labour - it lost nearly as much share of the vote as it did in the Hartlepool defeat in May.
There’s another point worth making here: it also belies the national opinion polling for the Tories. This follows from their humiliating defeat in Chesham and Amersham and suggests that there is much greater discontent with the government than the polls show. If you combine the Labour vote with those on the left who voted Galloway, the left had a big majority. This should be good news for the left, and I suspect shows a very deep well of discontent over the pandemic and its consequences which we must attempt to organise around.
The left can advance if it sees its role as putting class struggle at the centre of its politics, tries to group on issues it agrees on, and if it fights on the key issues facing working class people. One of these is the cynical use of both identity politics and Islamophobia by Labour – echoed of course by the Tories. It is a response to the surge in support for Palestine which has taken Britain’s ruling class by surprise. But it is also one way Labour’s right will try to deal with its own electoral weakness. None of this is new from Labour but we can expect it to be weaponised for political gain. Which marks a further ratchet downwards and highlights the need for a left alternative.
Lindsey German will be speaking at the Revolution! Festival on 9-11 July. Find out more and register here.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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