By Ian Drummond
It seems the main drama of the run-up to the election is going out more with a whimper than a bang tonight, a debate less of the Magnificent Seven than the Seven Dwarves. And what a pantomime it’s been, from the interminable debates about debates to the final dog’s breakfast of a resolution. The Presidential debate was fudged and thus dodged last week, substituting robust ideological debate between the only possible Prime Ministers with what almost seemed a bad marriage, in which they passed through the same rooms without saying a word to each other, on a day where Richard III of all people emerged as the most sympathetic character on live, event television. Now there seems to be no logic or fairness to which leaders and parties are and are not represented in the only proper national debate.
The primary blame must lie with Cameron, whose hypocritical cowardice and attempt to dodge scrutiny came across as plainly as the plum in his voice. That he fought off a head to head with Milliband to the bitter end, rather than grabbing it with both hands as a solution to the dilemma of Nigel Farage’s eclipsing of Nick Clegg, either gives the lie to his main campaign theme of denigrating the Labour leader as an incapable figure of fun, or else speaks to an extreme lack of confidence in his own case. Instead he demanded the inclusion of the Greens, then the broadcasters, as if in a game of poker, called his bluff then raised both of them the SNP and Plaid Cymru.
So tonight we’re left with a hodgepodge of parties of varying size and significance, some national to Britain and others nationalists wanting to leave Britain, with other parties both nationalist and national of equivalent size and significance left out. And crucially, at a time when politics has never been crying out for it more, no one to speak out clearly and decisively against the Westminster elite and its various iron clad consensuses from austerity to war, not because no such party or leader exists but because they have been excluded.
Of course Cameron’s Green manoeuvre could be seen as an attempt to give Labour a UKIP problem of its own and outflank it to its left, but to imagine Cameron was ever happy to see his record subjected to the kind of forensic scrutiny a serious left representative could bring to bear is to give him too much credit, given his attitude even to debating Ed Milliband. In fact it may have just been a stalling technique, but another, deeply cynical explanation surely became apparent to many after Natalie Bennett’s infamous “brain freeze” moment, or in the interview where she implied membership ISIS and al-Qaeda should be legal as long as the members didn’t break the laws against violence. A distinction without a difference if ever there was one, catnip to the anti-“PC gone mad” bigots, and the most asinine argument imaginable in defence the beleaguered Muslim community, almost 100% of whom have no interest in joining ISIS, while the handful that do have no interest in setting up a legal organisation even if given the chance. And a gaffe that could now be used against her whenever she makes a sensible and potentially very popular point against austerity. So while the Greens are to the left of the Labour leadership on a range of issues, and have been having a successful few months’ recruitment, to imagine they’re about to emerge as a British Syriza or Podemos is pretty far-fetched, and to be blunt the fact they replaced the very talented Caroline Lucas with Bennett as leader, so soon after a bloody battle inside the party just to establish the leader role, is symptomatic of why that is. On a side note the Greens aren’t even a national party but officially the Green Party of England and Wales, and instead of taking a principled position either way on the monumental issue of the Scottish referendum deferred to the Scottish Greens who joined most of the trendy left in an unprincipled tailing of Scottish nationalism.
Which neatly brings us to the broadcasters first addition to the field, and there’s no doubt that the Scottish National Party are newsworthy these days. In fact they fit the bill for “Labour’s UKIP” better than the Greens, and in fact will most likely do far more damage to Labour than UKIP will to the Tories. The irony is that just a few months ago one of their main arguments for leaving Britain was the inferiority of first past the post to the Scottish Parliament’s proportional electoral system, but now that same hated Westminster system looks set to give them almost every seat in Scotland for 45%of the vote and of course they don’t seem to mind but rather pretend to speak for all Scots. It’s true that their new leader is to the left of her predecessor, though she’s shown this more so far by dropping his Thatcherite policy of cutting corporation tax than by any great initiative of her own, and it’s also true the SNP leadership is to the left of the Blairite leader of Scottish Labour but then so is Ed Milliband, which seems to be the main reason Jim Murphy returned to tics in the first place. So despite adopting ferocious rhetoric on austerity, and being a far slicker political machine than the Greens, the SNP can at best be seen as temporary and slippery allies by those they are now courting south of the border.
A look at their now 8 years in government in Scotland, with barely a redistributive measure in sight, zero money put aside to fight austerity in the coming year, Tory cuts including the vile bedroom tax passed on (until they were forced reluctantly to use the powers of devolution against it) and friendly relations with the likes of Donald Trump and even Rupert Murdoch after the hacking scandal, shows that whatever else the SNP are they are no socialists. And on the iconic red line of Trident Sturgeon has both ruled out and left open the possibility of backing down more than once; it may yet be that Trident will be to the SNP as fees were to the LibDems. In any case any attempt to reform Britain as a whole will always be a poor second for them to the true aim of splitting it and leaving the English working people to fend for themselves, if against a strengthened Conservative Party then so be it. Ominously for the future of the country the Tories and SNP are already feeding off each other to get support in the election, and the Scottish-English chasm this is opening up will always be more of a prize for the nationalists than any progressive policy or even power at a British level.
That the SNP, given the post-referendum political earthquake in Scotland, were included may be understandable. That the broadcasters then included Plaid Cymru, and nobody else, is inexplicable. While Scottish politics has been transformed by nationalism in recent times, Welsh nationalism remains stagnant, with devolution and a brief coalition with Plaid having actually strengthened Welsh Labour. Wales is now one of the most stable, least decisive battlegrounds of this whole unstable and unpredictable election. The Plaid leader Leanne Wood is an estimable person, a self described socialist, but isn’t even a legend in her own manor of Wales let alone in the country as a whole. There has been no surge in Plaid membership, and they’re about as unlikely to differ from the SNP at this point, given the affinity and imbalance, as the Scottish Greens would have been to add anything genuinely different and significant had Patrick Harvie been included alongside Natalie Bennett. That Plaid have been included while none of the Northern Ireland parties have been is one of the biggest examples of why the debate is such a mess. The Republicans and Unionists in Norhtern Ireland may agree about very little, but the DUP and Sinn Fein, at the very least, would both be right to see themselves as more significant than Plaid, both in size and by being in government. And most importantly of all perhaps in the size of their Westminster contingents, especially as the DUP may yet prop up a Tory government just short of a majority and almost did last time, had Cameron not come too far short. The rest of Britain might like to see who would be calling the shots in that most reactionary of several possible outcomes, in fact it may well affect some people’s votes.
The broadcasters’ final gaping omission is even more serious, in that an all-Britain party and leader that met all the criteria so inconsistently applied elsewhere is not appearing, despite being the only one who could truly hold Cameron and the Westminster elite to account, without the complications of the Greens and the not so hidden agendas of the nationalists. George Galloway is the greatest orator of his generation, his every appearance on Question Time an event; it’s a point of consensus even by those who don’t like him that no-one else could have done what he did at the US Senate, and Alex Salmond paid him a backhanded compliment in the Scottish referendum by refusing to debate him. More importantly for this debate, his party Respect has exactly the same amount of MPs as the Greens and until the defection of two Tories had far more than UKIP. Unlike Plaid it is currently going through a surge, with councillors defecting from Labour and all ex-Respect councillors returning (a feat no other party has managed on such a scale as far as I know, not that UKIP for one would want to given the way it usually parts company with its councillors!), new bases being set up such as in Halifax and George’s own re-election against a shambolic Labour party looking more assured by the day. The real reason the Westminster bubble apes the Scottish separatist in refusing to debate him looks suspiciously like fear and bias, but that doesn’t look like it will be able to stop a second Bradford Spring.
What it will stop, regrettably, is the debate audience hearing a coherent and incisive alternative to the discredited mainstream, on a raft of issues now set to be overlooked or reduced to an almost parodic false dichotomy. On domestic politics and the national question on this island this will perhaps be easiest of all to see, with the SNP (and Plaid), and Cameron and Farage, creating an impression of Thatcherite Britain/England versus left wing Celtic separatism. The case Labour should make and used to be good at making about class solidarity across medieval imaginary borders may yet be namechecked by Milliband, but however well he puts it his party is now hamstrung in Scotland by the disastrous decision to fight the referendum jointly with the Tories. Scotland and England, and working people the world over, really are better together, but Labour and the Tories really were not. George Galloway on the other hand played a decisive role in the campaign to save Britian, independently of the sclerotic and disastrous official No campaign. His Just Say Naw tour reached tens of thousands of working class and left wing Scots, pointing out the practical holes in the SNP’s vision of independence, the Thatcherite nature of Salmond’s key pledges, the ugliness that petty nationalism was creating and the wider labourite case for workers’ unite across this small island. Although Gordon Brown’s late intervention was definitely also significant, the semi-official history that makes him the sole saviour of the union, let alone gives credit to the Better Together campaign which perhaps did more than the effective Yes campaign to turn a 70/30 initial split against separation into 55/45, is self defeatingly wrong to airbrush out both Galloway’s contribution and the politics it represents. While the working class, anti-establishment nature of his battle for Britain may preclude being offered a knighthood for his role in saving the country, he certainly deserves better than to have the Labour candidate of all people use his campaign to keep Scotland in the union and not doom the north of England to perpetual Tory governments as a reason to vote him out in Bradford.
On his speciality of foreign affairs, far from making the anti-war movement look silly by talk of legalising ISIS and al-Qaeda if only they’d be non-violent, George Galloway was until very recently the only person in frontline British politics warning against ISIS at a time when the Cameron government wanted to bomb Syria in an effective military alliance with them. Respect’s position in defence of minorities sees it often crudely labelled a Muslim party, yet it was for a time Respect almost alone in British politics that stood up for the minorities, including Christian minorities in the lands where Christ himself lived, now threatened with annihilation by jihadis funded mainly by the West’s allies in the Gulf, such friends of liberty as Saudi Arabia. While Churchill was feted as “the man who was right”, put in the Cabinet and shortly became Prime Minister when his warnings about the Nazis turned out to be true, Galloway’s prescience on ISIS was airbrushed from the political narrative when our leaders belatedly came round to the understanding that they were seriously bad news. When he tried to bring his experience to bear by warning against playing into the hands of ISIS again by giving them the bombing campaign they were effectively asking for, he was heckled by both sides of the House of Commons, one MP even saying they “didn’t want a history lesson”, while Jacqui Smith on This Week acknowledged his point that the Iraq War had killed a million people by saying it was a different issue, and so presumably didn’t matter!
In fact it seems like a theme in George Galloway’s political life that his prescience, because it upsets the establishment, ends up being held against him. On Iraq there are now few people who would argue against his main point that it was an illegal immoral unwinnable war, yet his ferocious opposition to Tony Blair’s warmongering still sees him treated as persona non grata by much of the political mainstream, even as Blair himself becomes more and more of a liability to Labour. On Palestine his campaigning of now 40 years standing for the rights of the Palestinian people has never seemed more obviously correct, as Netanyahu wins an election in Israel on an openly racist campaign and increasingly cuts ties with almost all international players bar the rabid wing of the US Republican Party. Yet instead of being hailed for being right all along, Galloway is first brutally beaten in the streets by an extreme Israel supporter without a single public condolence from any mainstream politician, then attacked on Question Time as an anti-semite by a loaded audience, with the chair and other panellists complicit. This despite his being, as on ISIS Syria, pretty much the only British politician to call out the fascist nature of many of the west’s allies in the Ukraine, final solution nostalgics now in the government coalition of a land where much of the final solution took place. Even his robust defence of Julian Assange, the issue that proved most controversial for him on the left, and saw him traduced by the Scottish Green leader without context or decency as a rape denier in front of thousands of schoolchildren in the biggest debate of the independence referendum, has recently become far harder to fault him for as the new Swedish government has itself backed down and agreed to question Assange in London after all, as they could and should have at any time since 2010.
Given all of this it’s no wonder the establishment, both political and media, would never willingly invite him to their party, as he is so very well placed and inclined to spoil it. And to do so on behalf of working people, of all colours, creeds and all parts of this small island. That real labour, socialist and anti-imperialist tradition, not separatist nationalism dressed up as old labour, is the alternative Britain needs, and in excluding the former while over-representing the latter the broadcasters put our fragile union more at risk. Just as well then that big media companies are trusted about as much as politicians these days…