APRIL 4, 2012 – In the end, it wasn’t even close. Britain’s most prominent anti-war politician, George Galloway, is back as a Member of Parliament for his Respect Party, after receiving support so overwhelming that he had, in the words of a reporter for The Guardian, “annihilated the Labour vote”. As impressive as was his 10,000 vote majority in the by-election in his new constituency of Bradford West, even more so was the social movement feel which accompanied his campaign, replete with “first-time voters shimmying up trees to hang Respect banners” and “taxi drivers competing to see who could cancel their Labour party membership first” (Phidd 2012). Invoking the great mass movements in the Middle East from last year, Galloway called it the “Bradford Spring”. He will now, again, have an internationally recognized public forum from which to be tribune of the anti-war movement, and support the long struggle of the people of Palestine. Responding to him will be a real challenge for the pro-war Con-Dem Coalition, and the New Labour “opposition”. His victory also highlights challenges facing social movements in Britain and elsewhere.
For Con-Dem (the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats) and New Labour, these challenges are obvious. All three major parties are deeply implicated in the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Galloway has been by far their most prominent opponent. He was suspended from the Labour Party in 2003, and ultimately expelled for saying that the U.S. and Britain had invaded Iraq “like wolves” and “urging British soldiers to disobey ‘illegal orders’” (Hall 2003).
Given the carnage which has happened in the years since, his position of 2003 looks prophetic. British casualties in Iraq, from 2003 until 2009, totaled 5,970 including 179 dead. In Afghanistan, the toll has been even higher. From 2008 through 2011, there were annually, on average, more than 2,400 British casualties. In total since 2001, 404 British troops have died (Casualty Monitor 2009; Casualty Monitor 2012). We have no idea about the civilian toll in the two countries – the U.S., Britain, Canada and the other coalition forces have shown no interest in keeping track. A very conservative figure puts civilian deaths in Afghanistan at 8,813 and the Iraq total at 100,000. Other figures go far higher – by one estimate 864,531 civilians killed in Iraq, part of 1,556,156 total casualties as of August, 2010 (Iraq Body Count (IBC) 2012; Unkown News 2010).
New Labour and the Tories both, of course, have this blood on their hands. New Labour was in office for the launch of both the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. It was only able to enter the one in Iraq when massive backing from the Tories fended off the anti-war votes from 122 Labour MP (Blitz 2003). The Liberal Democrats have played a more equivocal role. They made a name for themselves as “the mainstream anti-war voice” by coming out against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But they supported going to war in Afghanistan in 2001, a war which has proven to be just as futile as the war in Iraq, and far more costly in terms of British lives lost (Russell, Cutts, and Fieldhouse 2007, 194). And now, of course, they sit side by side with the Tories, propping up the Tory-led, Con-Dem, pro-war coalition.
Galloway has consistently linked these wars to the ongoing occupation of Palestine. It was for his support of Palestine, and his criticism of what he called “the most extreme Israeli government in history” that Canada’s Tories banned him from Canada (a ban which Galloway and the anti-war movement in Canada fought and successfully overturned). Throughout the entire period of the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, Galloway explained how both wars were linked to the occupation of Palestine. “The price of peace” he argued “is justice for the Palestinians” (Galloway 2010).
The price of war and occupation has been horrendous. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006 “resulted in at least 1,109 Lebanese deaths, the vast majority of whom were civilians, 4,399 injured and an estimated 1 million displaced” (Human Rights Watch 2007, 4). During Israel’s assault on Gaza between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009, “the magnitude of the harm to the local population was unprecedented: 1,389 Palestinians were killed, 759 of whom did not take part in the hostilities. Of these, 318 were minors under age 18” (B’Tselem 2010).
In domestic politics, the most important issues facing Britain are the aftershocks from the Great Recession of 2008-2009. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Britain’s recovery from that slump has been short-lived, the economy having slipped back into recession (Inman 2012). But the domestic economic problems are in fact intimately linked to the three key foreign policy issues outlined here – Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. In Britain and elsewhere, the foreign wars and occupations in the Middle East and Central Asia, have served the domestic purpose of distracting the population at home by dividing people along racist lines. Islamophobia has become an ugly scar, cutting through community after community in Britain, even allowing the extreme right wing to begin to regain a foothold in British Politics. As Galloway was celebrating his Bradford Spring, the neo-Nazi English Defence League (EDL) was attempting to organize with similar groups from continental Europe in a racist “Stop the Islamification of Europe” event in Denmark (Norman 2012). This kind of racist Islamophobia cannot be challenged without simultaneously challenging the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing occupation of Palestine.
For clearly staking out his position against war, occupation and Islamophobia, Galloway has become the target for some pretty awful abuse at the hands of the pro-war media. Much of this involves hurling insults to avoid responding to Galloway’s cogent arguments. The late Christopher Hitchens – who had by the 21st century wandered far from his left-wing youth, ending up in the pro-Iraqi war camp – railed against Galloway, calling him a “hysterically extremist political thug” (Hitchens 2007). Others have simply short-circuited discussion by labeling him the “Saddam-supporting British MP” (Raphael 2004). Sometimes the insults took a racialized turn. The Business in 2003 attacked Galloway and one of his supporters saying both “look like well-fed sheikhs” (The Business 2003). Some of the most vociferous attacks came from figures associated with the British left. Nick Cohen, writing in the New Statesman, said that “Respect, the alliance between the Muslim Association of Britain and the Socialist Workers Party [SWP], shows how ugly the far left in Britain has become” (Cohen 2004, 26). When Galloway was elected to Parliament as a Respect member in 2005, Cohen called it the “worst result” of election night because “an alliance between the intellectually bankrupt Marxist-Leninists of the Socialist Workers Party and Islamic fundamentalists” had been behind the victory. “Let’s not mince words. George Galloway’s defeat of [the Labour Party’s] Oona King is a disaster for the democratic left. As the campaign was fought on communalist lines, it is a disaster for multiracial London” (Cohen 2005, 11).
In politics, the term communalism has different meanings. In certain analyses, it is used to express the “democratic and potentially practicable dimension of the libertarian goal” (Bookchin 2001). Cohen was invoking the much more common use of the term, one often deployed in the Indian sub-continent. “Communalism is a political trend dating from the late 19th century that takes India’s religious groups (or ‘communities’) as the natural components of political life. Communalists thus seek political mobilization along religious lines, with high-caste Hindus and wealthy Muslims as the ‘natural’ leaders–and members of other religious groups as the ‘natural’ antagonists” (Vanaik and Lal 2004). In a careful analysis in 1992, Achin Vanaik said that the communalist movements “harden the divisions between different religious communities and increase tensions between them” (1992, 47 and 50). Bipan Chandra deploys the term with effect to analyze the ideology of the Hindu nationalist, anti-Muslim RSS (National Patriotic Organization) in India. Chandra is very blunt in his analysis. “Communalism in India is a form of fascism” (Chandra 1990, 42). The label of “communalism” then, is not one to be lightly thrown around. When directed at Respect – a party campaigning in Britain against war, against imperialism and against Islamophobia – its use is completely out of context and clearly absurd.
But in spite of this barrage of near hysterical criticism, a massive anti-war movement was built, with “Respect: The Unity Coalition” as its political face. Galloway has been, along with Salma Yaqoob, the most visible public figure associated with Respect and the anti-war movement – Galloway as the one Respect candidate to win a seat in the House of Commons, Yaqoob, the massively respected woman from an Islamic background, who has become an internationally-known symbol of the fight against war, imperialism and Islamophobia, and who from 2006 until stepping down for health reasons in 2011, was an elected Birmingham City Councillor (Gibbons 2011). The coming together of Yaqoob and Galloway, along with most of the key organizations and individuals of the British “left of Labour”, was an accomplishment which achieved international recognition, and from which many of us drew inspiration.
Between Galloway’s 2005 election win in Bethnal Green and this year’s win in Bradford West, Respect had to navigate a severe internal crisis. In 2007, the SWP, linked so closely to Galloway by Cohen in 2005, suddenly became his harshest critic. Prior to 2007, SWP publications had very effectively challenged the “communalist” charge, used in such a perverse way by Cohen in 2005 (Middleton 2006). But by late 2007, things had changed. Respect leaders such as Yaqoob had to defend Respect from the communalist charge (Yaqoob 2007), this time being levelled by leading members of the SWP itself (Harman 2008, 35–36). The divide between the SWP and Galloway was portrayed as a “left-right” split, the right being Galloway and his supporters (Socialist Worker 2007). Three very prominent SWP members who refused to part company with Galloway, were expelled from the party. To outside observers, the dispute was almost incomprehensible, particularly when it became framed in the context of obscure stories about century-old disputes in the European left, including a divide in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903 (Socialist Worker 2007), and a divide between two rival groups at the founding of the Second International in 1889 (Harman 2008, 25).
Fortunately, Respect survived the crisis. Far from being on the right, leading Respect members such as George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob and Kevin Ovenden have played a prominent role as leaders of the Palestine solidarity movement in Britain. All three participated in the Summer University of Palestine in 2011 (Viva Palestina 2011a). Viva Palestina, which sponsored that university, has organized numerous aid convoys to Gaza, with Galloway playing a leading role. Ovenden, one of the three expelled from the SWP, was aboard the Mavi Marmara when it was attacked by the Israeli military in May 2010, leading to the deaths of nine Turkish citizens (Viva Palestina 2011b). And fortunately, the disputes of 2007 are no longer visible in 2012. There are now two organizations associated with those who led the SWP in 2007, and both of them warmly welcomed Galloway’s victory in Bradford West (Counterfire 2012; Bhattacharyya 2012).
Galloway is a complicated figure. He caused considerable embarrassment to the anti-war movement, with his strange 2006 appearance on the television show “Big Brother” (The Economist 2006). He is unapologetic in his support for the Soviet Union, calling the disappearance of that Stalinist state “the biggest catastrophe of my life” (Hattenstone 2002). More substantially, his position is very conservative and on the wrong side of history, when he argues that “abortion is morally and ethically wrong” (Cohen 2004).
But he doesn’t do international speaking tours about choice on abortion, or to be nostalgic about Stalinism. He does speaking tours to condemn the occupation of Palestine, to challenge politicians like Harper, Cameron, Blair, Bush and Obama who again and again and again, in the pursuit of state power and corporate profits, show themselves willing to sacrifice young people from their own country by the hundreds, and people of all ages from the Global South by the tens of thousands.
Galloway has demonstrated, over the last ten years, that principled anti-imperialism can be combined with an open challenge to rightward moving social democracy, and that opposition can move from the margins to the mainstream, finding an opening in electoral politics. Clearly this is of interest to the social movements in Britain. For those of us in Canada, faced with a rightward moving NDP under its new ex-Liberal leader Thomas Mulcair, those lessons are just as important. Stephen Harper, for one, is aware of the reality of this challenge. That is why he tried to ban Galloway from Canada.
Galloway, together with the anti-war movement in Canada, broke that ban, and November 25, 2010, I was one of an audience of hundreds in a packed auditorium at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he gave a magnificent presentation on war and empire. For one and a half hours, without notes, Galloway took the crowd on a tour through the Middle East and Central Asia, analyzed the dynamics of imperialism and national oppression, made the case for justice for the Palestinians and for an end to the war in Afghanistan – relating all of this to his own conflict with the current Tory administration in Ottawa. In his sum-up, he looked the audience in the eyes and said there were three words to take away from his presentation in the current period – “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,” the three key words of the movement to build support for the people of Palestine (Palestinian BDS National Committee 2012).
Part of a marathon 10-city tour organized by a coalition of organizations – including the Halifax Peace Coalition, the Canadian Arab Federation, Toronto Coalition to Stop the War, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights and Independent Jewish Voices (Defend Free Speech 2010) – the Edmonton meeting was a magnificent example of how to convincingly present unpopular ideas to a mass audience. Galloway is an asset in the fight against war and imperialism.
© 2012 Paul Kellogg
This article has been published as “Britain: The challenge of George Galloway’s ‘Bradford Spring’,” Links, 4 April; “Britain: The challenge of George Galloway’s ‘Bradford Spring’,” JK Alternative Viewpoint, 16 April.
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