Cracks Beneath the Surface: what does Galloway’s victory mean?

by Eamon Rooke

What happened to Labour?

Early this morning, it was announced that George Galloway won the Bradford West by-election. Its not unusual for by-elections to produce random victories for independents, small parties, or underdogs. It is unusual for those victories to be won by a swing of more than 36%.

Bradford West happens to also be one of the single safest Labour seats one could imagine. It’s a checklist of all the attributes Labour planners could hope for: Northern, post-industrial, vulnerable to spikes in unemployment, and, crucially, populated with a large ethnic minority community.

Why here, and why now? The government has had probably its worst two weeks since it formed. It privatised the NHS to huge popular opposition. It released a budget that objectively steals from the poor to give to the rich, again against popular opinion. It then sparked a mini-fuel crisis. And all that pasty stuff. Labour are ahead in the polls by 10%. How on earth could they lose this?

Galloway himself offers some of the answers. Caught up in his messianic visions of his victory, Galloway reminded Labour that they can’t take for granted the Northern vote. This is by far the single most important reason for the upset. It’s well known that Labour expects the North to vote for them. They confidently assume that the fear of losing welfare and jobs is enough to push even the most disillusioned voter to Labour, or to at least stay at home and not vote for Tories. This confidence only swells whenever you throw in the factors of that voter being working class, a woman, or most importantly for this election, not white.

Labour has, for far too long, knowingly exploited the fear of the vulnerable for its own political ends. The Tories do this without shame: they scare-monger around issues like immigration until apathy and hate ensues. Labour’s method is much more deceptive and, ultimately, malicious. They know that no-one close to power is ever, ever, going to speak up for the poor as much as they do. And that’s not much. Knowing this, they go further and further to right – closer and closer to businesses, Western war criminals, ‘important’ people – and continue to do so whilst winking to objectors with a look that says: what are you going to do about it? If a careerist, young Labourite can get ahead as much as any Tory can, with a guilt-free and clean conscience that says its in the name of ‘democratic socialism’, they are going to do just that.

This issue speaks to something deeper in the way in which ideology operates today. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s fantastic work The New Spirit of Capitalism (2007) outlines how it is in fact through the very objections made within and against capitalism, that capitalism advances brand identities. There are ‘feminist’ perfumes. ‘Punk rock’ ipad apps. And, to refer to Slavoj Zizek, Starbucks coffee that saves the lives of Guatemalan children. The same hatred of oppression produced by societies’ structures can, ideologically, keep those structures intact. Worse, they keep them better intact than those which are openly intolerant, and authoritarian.

The seemingly distant but important link I’m trying to shed light on here is that Labour’s exploitation of the poor isn’t obvious. Its deceptive, beneath the surface, and in fact veiled precisely with the promise of ‘representation’, ‘standing up for local communities’ etc. In sum, power operates today in ideology not wrapped up in hate, but in ‘understanding’ and ‘tolerance’. We can kill Muslims abroad, but its ok because we have tea with them at home.

People see through this, though. And, given the chance, they will demonstrate just how well they know that the wool is being pulled over their eyes. Galloway – a thoroughly unlikable, equally careerist, closet Stalinist – is absolutely right when he says that voters do not want ‘austerity-lite’ policies that Labour currently offers. He’s right whenever he says the occupation of Afghanistan is morally unacceptable to huge portions of the British population. These people do not have a voice, and Galloway is giving it to them. That’s why he won.

The next time Miliband and Balls are in one of their pathetic tugs of war with the Blairites, they would do well to remember days like today. The question, for a lot of people outside the London-Westminster-leafy suburb bubble, is not how to destroy the welfare state and colonise the third world in the most cost-effective, kindest way. It’s, quite simply, why are we doing these things at all? Galloway has an answer. Labour doesn’t.

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2 comments
  1. josephmarkus said:

    Really insightful piece, Eamon.

    I also tend to think that you’re right. There’s something in this ‘defeat of the mainstream’ which goes beyond just West Bradford.

    I’ve read a lot of tweets (and a couple of commentaries) on this which suggest that it’s a scenario strictly limited to one group of people and one (particularly effective) campaigner.

    But the point—which you identified—is that the message he campaigned on is a narrative that goes beyond those other features of the contest. The sense of disillusion with the primary political parties is a ‘universalisable’ feature, and it is something that other campaigners can tap into.

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