It is fair to say that George Galloway is not universally popular.
It is therefore unsurprising that his attendance at a meeting with Ed Miliband was used by the increasingly desperate Blairites as ammunition to undermine the Labour leader. They claimed that Ed Miliband was preparing to welcome Galloway back into the Labour Party.
An article in last week’s Mail on Sunday quotes an unnamed source:
Labour MPs warned their leader against taking such action. ‘Galloway is a traitor,’ said one. ‘It’s naive lunacy for the leader to have anything to do with him. I thought he wanted to get rid of the Red Ed tag. He will rejoin Labour over my dead body.’
Of course, the meeting with Galloway is only one of a number of absurd issues currently being raised by the Blairites to undermine Ed Miliband. As Jon Lansman has remarked at Left Futures:
No sooner had David Miliband announced his departure from British politics than Blair, Mandelson, Milburn and other assorted “grandees“ started to attack his brother, without regard to the impending local elections. Cowardly right-wing shadow cabinet members are briefing anonymously against him on a daily basis too.
The results of the selection process for the short listed London euro candidates is also being challenged, but is about time that the Blairites realised that politics matters, and a candidate like Anne Fairweather who has briefed against extending employment rights to agency workers is not acceptable to many sections of the party, and its supporters.
According to Galloway himself, rejoining the Labour Party was not discussed.
Galloway’s recent meeting with Miliband led to speculation that the Respect MP wanted to return to the Labour party, from which he was expelled in 2003 after criticising Tony Blair over the Iraq war. Speaking exclusively to IBTimes UK, Galloway said he would not go into detail about his discussions with Miliband. “It was a private meeting,” he said.
“I categorically say my return to the Labour party wasn’t discussed. I have absolutely no desire to return to the Labour party.” Galloway claimed news of the meeting had been leaked by members of Labour’s Blairite faction, and Tony Blair himself was in on the plot.
Nevertheless, what should really have been a storm in a tea cup about meeting Galloway, has gained wider traction.
The New Statesman reports how:
shadow international development secretary Ivan Lewis tweeted:
“Re Galloway being allowed to join Labour,more chance of finding Lord Lucan riding Shergar! @Ed_Miliband abhors his values+divisive politics”
Re Galloway being allowed to join Labour,more chance of finding Lord Lucan riding Shergar! @Ed_Miliband abhors his values+divisive politics.
— Ivan Lewis (@IvanLewis_MP) April 21, 2013
And Mark Fergusson writes:
[Galloway] should be considered untouchable for any Labour leader. There are some places you just shouldn’t go – even for something as important as the boundaries vote. If George Galloway’s is the one vote you need to pass legislation then you need to look at getting the votes from elsewhere – or lose.
This needs a little bit of unpacking. There are two issues to consider, i) to what degree George is really outwith the broader labourist tradition; and ii) to what degree does the Labour Party have to cooperate with supporters of other political parties.
The second point is obvious, it is simply good politics to interact with other politicians for the common good. If Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness can work together, then is Labour’s self confidence and moral authority really so weak that it cannot overlook some triumphalism of George’s in the heat of contested by-elections? Fortunately Ed Miliband is a leader capable of better judgement.
George Galloway was a Labour MP for 16 years, for Glasgow Hillhead and then Glasgow Kelvin; while he has always been a colourful, and sometimes controversial figure, before the Iraq war his Labour Party membership was regarded as unproblematic. So just how broad a church has the Labour Party been traditionally?
Labour has been the main progressive political party in Britain for a hundred years, and is distinguished from European socialist parties by its close and organic links with the trade unions. However, the core, traditional working-class electoral base of the party has never been sufficient to win a general election on its own, and therefore its politics have always been coalitional in both aspiration and reality. Labour has always sought to be a party representing the best interests of the nation, not just of any particular class.
Nevertheless the relationship between the Labour Party and trade unionism has historically set the boundaries to both left and right of what is encompassed by the labourist envelope. It has provided an institutional link with communities of solidarity, and aspirations for social justice; and it has provided the iconography and mythology of an historic and progressive social movement. But while trade unionism seeks to mitigate the rule of capital, it is not necessarily antagonistic to the logic of capitalism itself, and British trade unions have rarely opposed foreign policy, including the historically rapacious role of the British Empire.
While Harold Wilson admirably kept Britain out of the Vietnam war, it is arguable that Tony Blair’s commitment to the objectives of US foreign policy in the Iraq war was regrettably consistent with the thrust of Labour foreign policy since the second world war, and it was the commendable depth of opposition to the war within the party and the unions that was arguably untypical: a new and welcome development.
Galloway’s expulsion from the Labour Party in 2003 was largely for forthrightly advocating anti-war positions that were widespread among people who would normally be targeted as Labour voters. The political phenomenon of the Respect Party is therefore best understood as a broadly labourist party which gave electoral expression to an anti-war political movement that could not find voice through the Labour Party in the particular context of the Iraq War.
It is not in that sense unique, and other minority parties have given expression to political sentiments not easily reconciled with labourism. Respect might be seen as analogous to the Common Wealth Party which won seats in the 1940s; or arguably even Plaid, which is also a largely labourist party but that also gives expression to Welsh political consciousness and aspirations.
However, despite the broad affinity between Galloway’s underlying politics and the labourist tradition, the last ten years has seen a widening and acrimonious divergence. This is partly the unavoidable to-and-fro of adversarial elections, but it has been exacerbated by a number of factors.
Firstly, Galloway’s intial election victory against Oona King in Bethnal Green took place in the near aftermath of the war where feelings were raw; and the attachment of many Muslims to the anti-war message of the Respect Party in the area also intersected with other local tensions, not helped by historical divisions in the Tower Hamlets Labour Party. It was this election that evoked the visceral dislike of Galloway from some of Labour’s more tribal loyalists.
Secondly, George Galloway has a high political profile bigger than his party, and has needed to build his own brand for both political and commercial reasons. George Galloway “the celebrity” is a media construct quite separate from the living, breathing and humanly fallible man himself. He has to maintain a payroll of aides and helpers, and since he left the Labour Party he has not worked within a disciplining framework.
George is always under intense scrutiny and there is harsh unforgiveness if he ever misspeaks or misjudges a situation. His remarks about Julian Assange’s allegations of rape were ill considered and poorly expressed for a man of his verbal talents; but not much more ill-considered than Tony Benn’s. Yet it started a moral panic against Galloway, where few were prepared to defend him.
It is further complicated because Galloway’s electoral USP is to hark back to the divisions in British society that were thrown open by the Iraq war; but not only the Labour Party, but also most of the electorate has moved on.
George is a robust politician, and he understands more than most the ruthless nature of the game. It is a contact sport, and the fact that the simplistic, media-created simulacrum of Galloway has become a pariah is not a fair reflection of the real life George Galloway, a man of considerable talent and principle. And for those who do vilify George, can they genuinely believe that Galloway is worse than the war criminals who lied about non-existent WMDs, and precipitated Britain into an illegal and amoral war in Iraq?