Could Galloway return to Labour?

We know he wants to rejoin Labour. But does the party want him back?

The tears and anguish in Bethnal Green & Bow in the early hours of 7 May 2005, when Oona King lost to George Galloway by 800 votes, were very different to the pale expressions of shock in Bradford, as Imran Hussein walked out of the count to disappear back into obscurity.  In east London, Galloway won by exploiting divisions. In Bradford he won by offering entertainment, and stimulating a constituency where voters felt taken for granted.

At the time of Oona’s loss, I was chair of Bow Labour. I saw the Respect Party born through a coalition of Godless communists and religious fundamentalists. It was always doomed to division and that came in the council elections the following year. I created what became our mantra: “Vote for us, or you get Galloway!” The white working class obliged. Respect did gain 11 council seats, but they were all Bangladeshi candidates, none of the SWP people were elected.

This was when Galloway started to complain about the tiresome village politics of the Bangladeshis. This is when he began to miss being a member of the Labour Party. From then on, he started to look around for some way, anyway, to get back into Labour, but every effort eluded him, until Bradford.

Today he doesn't speak of rejoining Labour, but his actions do. He used to call for the death penalty for Tony Blair. Today, if he disagrees with Labour policy, he doesn’t make personal attacks. This isn’t just since the election, but during the election also. He is actively behaving himself. The £200k salary from a sports radio slot doesn’t compare to the buzz of parliament. George doesn’t want that buzz to come to an end in May 2014, nor does he want the uncertainty and the hard work of trying to win somewhere else.  

So what role could George Galloway have back in the Labour Party? There can be no question of George occupying a position in the Foreign Office. The salute to Saddam Hussein will never be forgotten. It’s difficult to imagine him occupying any ministry. The use for him is that he entertains us. Politics is often a boring subject. We hear the politicians make the same old arguments time and again. George fires things up. He is a character.

But do we really want the media to invite George onto TV panels as “The Labour bloke” at the expense of a senior Labour politician, especially when we don’t know what he’s going to say? He might be behaving himself now, but once he’s been accepted back into the party, there’s no saying what he’ll decide to do.

A return for George is more likely through real-politick than rational consideration. It is likely that this coalition will end with the Rat-Run Scenario. Once we get close to the election the Lib Dems will split along Labour/Tory lines and the government will survive on a wafer majority. We’ll be back to the days of sick MPs being brought in to vote on stretchers. At that point George Galloway becomes powerful, because he has a vote. 

The problem with that idea is that Labour won’t leave it till so late to decide what to do about this seat. By the time the coalition runs for the hills, Bradford West will have a Labour candidate. If it’s not George then whoever it is will not step aside for anyone. So it’s unlikely that the national party will have anything much to do with it. It will be for the 400 members of Bradford West to decide. How will that play out?

Imran Hussein is unlikely to remain as candidate. He made a fundamental mistake by ignoring Galloway and it’s unlikely that his party believe he can win in two years. A fresh face will be needed. The question is whether there is anyone who can take on Galloway and win this seat back. If it is the case that Imran Hussein was the best candidate that this constituency could produce, then George Galloway will be laughing.

Dan McCurry is a photographer in east London and a Labour activist. He is a former chair of the Bow Labour Party.

Galloway doesn't speak of rejoining Labour, but his actions do. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dan McCurry  is a photographer in east London and a Labour activist. He is a former chair of the Bow Labour Party.

Photo: Getty Images/Ian Forsyth
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The big battle in Corbyn's Labour party will be over organisation, not ideas

Forgotten and near-moribund institutions of the parliamentary Labour party will become vital once again, explain Declan McHugh and Will Sherlock. 

“Decidedly downbeat” was Chris Mullin’s assessment of the first Parliamentary Labour Party meeting following the 2001 landslide General Election victory. Blair was “received well, but without elation … the managing director was treated to some blunt warnings that this time around the boys and girls on the shop floor expect to be treated with more consideration.”

Assuming he wins the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn’s first PLP meeting will be anything but downbeat. The ‘shop floor’ will be more akin to a Lions’ Den. Labour’s new figurehead will face a PLP overwhelmingly opposed to him. Many will question the legitimacy of his election and some will reject his authority. From day one, he will face a significant number of Labour MPs not merely against him but actively out to get him. There has probably never been a situation where a leader of the Labour Party has been so far removed from the parliamentary party which he supposedly commands.

The closest historical parallel with Corbyn is arguably George Lansbury, another ardent socialist who took charge of the party after serious electoral defeat. But the comparison doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Lansbury may have been on the left but he had been a leading figure at the top of the party for many years. Corbyn has never been anything but part of the Labour fringe – rarely even attending PLP meetings.

Nevertheless an immediate move to oust him is unlikely. Whatever their concerns about the circumstances of his election, the scale of the contest will make MPs nervous about executing a coup. And crucially there is no obvious alternative leader waiting in the wings.

The internal battle against Corbyn will instead be more drawn out and fought through the internal structures of the party. The number of Labour MPs showing a sudden and hitherto undiscovered interest and expertise in the PLP Standing Orders is an indication of what is to come. When Labour is in government, journalists pay little notice to obscure internal committees. Now they are going to be the centre of attention. The PLP may be energised on an organisational front in a way that it never was during the Blair, Brown and even Miliband years. Conflict is likely to be focused in the following arenas:

  • Shadow Cabinet

Corbyn is now understood to populate his shadow cabinet by appointment, but opponents in the PLP are seeking a return to the system of elections. That will not be straightforward. Although the 2011 decision to end elections was primarily achieved by means of a PLP vote to change Standing Orders, it was subsequently agreed by the NEC and passed into party rules by Conference. It will be harder to undo that constitutional knot than it was to tie it. The PLP can vote to change Standing Orders again but the NEC and Conference will need to reflect that in further amendments to party rules if the decision is to have constitutional authority. That sets the scene for a messy clash between the PLP and the NEC if Corbyn chooses to defy the parliamentary party.

 

Even if elections are restored, it is not clear how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP will respond. MPs seeking the return of shadow cabinet elections hope to run a slate of candidates who will work to emasculate the new leader. But others have already resolved to boycott the front bench, regardless of how it is selected. Corbyn’s opponents face a dilemma. On the one hand abandoning the shadow cabinet may be viewed as walking off the pitch at a time when others are prepared to get stuck in and organised. On the other, it will be impossible to take a shadow cabinet post without signing up to some level of collective responsibility. That means undergoing the daily grind of defending the party line in front of the 24 hour media spotlight, with all statements scrutinised and recorded by Conservative researchers for future use.  How many Labour MPs would be willing to support a Corbynite line on foreign affairs, defence and economic policy? The new Labour leader will soon find out.

 

  • PLP meetings

The Monday evening meetings of the PLP are a weekly arena in which the frontbench and the party leadership are held to account by the wider parliamentary party. In the Kinnock, Smith and Blair days, although occasionally raucous, there was a degree of deference to the Leader. That has waned of late but will likely be non-existent under Corbyn. No one can remember the last time the PLP voted on a matter of policy, but Standing Orders permit it to so – expect opponents of the leadership to use this device.

 

  • PLP Chair

John Cryer, the current PLP Chair, will have his work cut out trying to manage what are likely to be stormy meetings. Moreover, the annual election of the Chair is an important barometer of the parliamentary party’s mood and the easiest means of organising a proxy vote on confidence in the leader. Importantly, the Chair of the PLP approves what motions can be tabled at the weekly PLP meeting. 

 

  • Parliamentary Committee

The parliamentary committee are effectively shop stewards for the backbenchers and the election of representatives is similarly a reflection of political sentiment in the PLP. New elections won’t happen until next May but the PLP could decide to initiate earlier elections. Labour MPs will ask whether the current committee, which includes one Corbyn nominator, is representative of the majority view. If not, a slate opposed to the leader could be organised. The Parliamentary Committee has executive powers that it rarely uses but this may change and will be significant. 

 

  • Departmental Groups

The PLP’s internal policy committees have been in decline since the early years of Tony Blair and have rarely made waves but have potentially important powers, including the right of Committee Chairs to speak from the Despatch Box. MPs may use these bodies to challenge frontbench policy positions in a way that no leader has experienced, promoting alternative agendas at odds with the leadership line on foreign affairs, defence and the economy. The Chairs have not yet been elected and this could be a key focus in the autumn.

 

  • Whips Office

The idea of Jeremy Corbyn directing the PLP to follow three-line whips is, to many, a source of amusement. A man who regularly topped the charts of rebel MPs will struggle to maintain the traditional system of party discipline – and indeed he has already indicated that he has no intention of “corralling” MPs in the traditional way. Most likely the whips will play a distinctly different role in the future, acting more as shop stewards for backbench MPs who want their concerns made clear to the Leader’s Office. And the likely deputy keader Tom Watson, who hails from the right wing union tradition but is close to some of the left, will play a major part in trying to balance the needs of the new leadership with the real anger of backbench Labour MPs.

Corbyn’s lack of authority and support within the wider parliamentary party puts a major question mark over his long term prospects as Labour leader. He would certainly lose any direct trial of strength against the PLP.

But the Corbynite group will seek to avoid confrontation inside Westminster. They believe their strength lies in the party outside Parliament and in the new influx of members and supporters. Their agenda will be to capitalise – though they might not use the term – on the leadership triumph by instituting rule changes that will revive the left within the party machine. Not just inside the NEC, the Conference and the party HQ but in the regional and constituency party organisation.

Most particularly, they are likely to seek to convert supporters into members, with a role in the selection of parliamentary candidates. By such means they will seek to apply external pressure on MPs from their own constituency parties. Labour members may be understandably wary about moving to decapitate a new leader so soon after his election. But they face a race against time to prevent him and his supporters from reshaping the party machine in ways that will undermine them from below.

 Will Sherlock and Declan McHugh are former Labour special advisers who now work at Lexington Communication.