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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour can be populist and English without copying Donald Trump

There's nothing deplorable about discussing the common interests of the people.

As Labour’s new populism gears up for Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, it will be tested on voters who are, by a significant measure, more likely to see themselves as English. In the 2011 census, both constituencies scored "English" identity nearly 10 per cent higher than the English average and still 5 per cent higher than England outside of London.

It’s no surprise that both Ukip and the Tories have polled well in these places. In the 2015 general election there was strong correlation between feeling "English", or feeling "more English than British", and voting Ukip and Conservative. Indeed, amongst the "English not British" Ukip took about a third of the votes across England, and the Tories a fifth. Labour lagged below 15 per cent.

Labour’s problems may be getting worse. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, showed "Englishness" gaining at the expense of "Britishness" in the year of Brexit. At the extremes, "English not British" rose by 5 per cent (from 14 per cent to 19 per cent), with ‘British not English’ falling by a similar amount. If past relationships hold, these voters will become harder for Labour to reach.

Although most people in England would favour an English Parliament, or English MPs alone voting on English issues, these have not yet become the political demands of an explicit nationalism as we might find in Wales, Scotland or Catalonia. Indeed, there’s no actual evidence of a direct link between feeling English and the way people vote. It well be that the underlying factors that make someone feel English are also those that incline them, overwhelmingly, to vote Brexit or to support Ukip.

We may identify the drivers of English identity - the declining power of the idea of Britain, the assertiveness of devolution, rapid migration and the EU - but we know little about the idea of England than lies behind these polls. There’s almost certainly more than one: the England of Stoke Central imaginations may not be identical to the Twickenham RFU car park on international day.

One of the most persistent and perceptive observers of alienated working class voters sheds some light on why these voters are turning towards their English roots. According to The Guardian’s John Harris:

"When a lot of people said ‘I’m English’, they often meant something like, ‘I’m not middle class, and I don’t want to be…. I’m also white, and coupled with the fact that I’m working class, I feel that somehow that puts me at the bottom of the heap, not least in the context of immigration. But I am who I am, and I’m not apologising for it.'" People who said "I’m English" seemed to be saying, 'I’m from somewhere' in a ways that politicians and the media did not."

Given Labour’s history in seats where support is ebbing away, it’s reasonable to think that the party’s target must be the voters who Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus describes as "left-wing nationalists". In this definition, "left-wing" attitudes tend to be be anti-capitalist, hostile to business, generous on benefits, support the welfare state and redistributive taxation. "Nationalist" attitudes are seen as isolationist, against immigration, disliking EU freedom of movement, thinking British means "born here" and that Britons should be put first.

For many in Labour, those nationalist attitudes might bring "a basket of deplorables" to mind.  In recent days both the Corbyn left, and centrist MPs like Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, have warned against meeting these voters’ concerns. Progressive Labour populists must also calm those fears. But Labour will be doomed as a party of government it it can’t reach these voters (even if it does hang on in the forthcoming by-elections). The obstacles are formidable, but with the right language and framing, Labour may find an appeal that could cut through without alienating the party's more liberal support.

Just acknowledging that England, and the English, exist would be a start. The reaction to Birmingham mayoral candidate Sion Simon’s appeal to England in a campaign tweet simply emphasised how much of Labour prefers to say Britain, even when they mean England. We don’t need a swirl of St George crosses at every event; we just need to use the word in normal everyday conversation. At least we would sound like we live in the same country.

The defiant cry to be recognised and heard should trigger another Labour instinct. The demand that the nation should be run in the common interests of the people runs deep through radical history. Jeremy Corbyn reached for this with his talk of "elites rigging the system". But no ordinary English conversation ever talks about elites. Instead of "mini-me Trumpism", English Labour populism needs careful framing in the language of day-to-day talk. Labour's target should be not be the wealthy per se, but those powerful people whose behaviour undermines the national interest and by doing so undermines the rest of us.

This language of national interest, both conservatively patriotic and politically radical, meets the mood of the moment. The select committee challenges to Amazon, Google, Philip Green and Mike Ashley struck a chord precisely because they revealed something deeply true and unpleasant about this land. We can defend the national interest without invoking a racist response. Why are our railways sold to other governments, and our companies sold abroad for quick profit? Why should it be easier for a foreign gangster to buy a house in Surrey, and hide their ownership overseas, than for an English family to get their own home?

By asking what any change means to the people of England, we might bridge the divide on immigration. If the impact of migration is exacerbated by the pressure on housing and service, let Labour make it clear that the rate of immigration should not exceed the pace we can build homes for those already here, as well as any newcomers. The government must be able to expand services to meet additional needs. If every policy should work in the interests of the people of England, migration which improves our services, creates jobs and grows the economy is to be welcomed. It is hard to see a genuine liberal objection to posing the migration challenge in that way. With the exception of refugees, immigration policy cannot be designed to benefit the migrant more than the resident.

Let the test of every policy be whether it works in the interests of the people of England, or works only for a few. That’s a simple test that would appeal to widely shared values. It could be the foundation of a genuine Labour populism that speaks to England.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University