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
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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.