I won't pretend. I never believed for a second that George Galloway would win the Bradford West bye-election for the Respect Party, much less that he would win with more than 50% of the vote and a majority of more than 10,000 votes, that the coalition vote would simultaneously collapse (the Liberals lost their deposit) and that all this would happen on a turnout of over 50% (very high for a bye-election).
For me it opens up many strategic questions for the Left. Because Galloway seemingly didn't have a huge amount in his favour. He didn't have a lot of money or a powerful local machine. He didn't have a sympathetic media establishment. He didn't have the support of the mosques in Muslim areas, who overwhelmingly backed Labour. The Respect Party for which he stood is not a well-oiled national organization, able to mobilise activists at short notice. One thing he did have in his favour was his renown, but that has obvious drawbacks, and there were many, many Labour big-hitters flooding the constituency - including the Labour leader himself. So, this result is extraordinary and demands explanation. Both Labour and Tory pundits have colluded in a set of bilious talking points: here comes George Galloway 'stirring up tensions' again, he's going to divide the left vote and let the Conservative in, Big Brother cat impersonator, vain cigar-chomper, doesn't care about the real issues that affect this community, meow, go back to Talksport, indefatigability, fundamentalism, demagogue, Armani suit-wearing attention-scrounger, oil-dealing reprobate, hilarious, sinister, Pat Mustard, etc etc. Even Patrick Wintour of The Guardian participated in some of the worst of this, in a frazzled early morning report which repellently suggested that Galloway won by mobilising the "Muslim immigrant" population around a "fundamentalist call" to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and fight job losses. I gather that the offending statements were removed from the article this morning.
We can dispense with these morality tales at once. Anyone trivial enough to be obsessed with them can find many blogs that cater to that particular fancy. There are even blogs who supported the Labour candidate who will have the cheek to talk about 'communalism', which (if you accept this highly problematic terminology) is arguably one of the things that was defeated in Bradford yesterday. We can also do without the liberal lament ("how-dare-George-Galloway-win-an-election", and "he's-ruining-it!"). The most laughable retort came from a Labour politician who suggested that Galloway had won because of his Big Brother celebrity. If he'd lost, that hardly luminous moment in his career would probably have been cited as a cause. We can drop that stupidity as well. Nor do I want to argue the toss with those on the Left who have allowed otherwise sensible disagreements with Galloway to obscure what is most important about this campaign - which is that its victory is a step forward for the Left, and particularly for the working class constituencies in Bradford West affected by racism, unemployment and cuts. I simply take it as read that anyone on the Left with a sense of proportion will welcome this result, and move on.
The major strategic question that the result raises is how the Left relates to Labour in this period. If it was wrong to underestimate the ability of social democracy to revive itself in opposition, it is evidently just as mistaken to underestimate the real weakness of Labour. The fact that Ed Miliband has been aware of the secular degeneration of Labour's base, and seemed to have some vague idea of addressing the problem, doesn't mean that that he has been empowered to do anything. Nor does it mean that his solutions have been anything but feeble. Miliband's solutions appear to be predicated on the idea that Labour's problems in its previously formidable working class strongholds are mainly organizational. That is, they can be resolved by incorporating a passive membership base, further reducing union influence and somehow 'reconnecting' with the 'grassroots'. Either that, or they require better 'communication'. Ideologically, his leadership is weak and prevaricating. The thematic of the 'squeezed middle' interests few and excites no one, while the moronic Blue Labour guff turned out to be deeply damaging. Politically, his leadership has worked to dampen and contain resistance to the cuts within the labour movement. This is in some ways just the classic mediating function of social democracy - don't struggle, just vote for us and we will bargain a better deal for you. But when this mediating function is captive to the logic of neoliberalism, the practical difference that Labour can offer is woefully inadequate.
Harriet Harman, who is far from the worst in Labour's leadership, showed the paucity of Labour's analysis when she insisted that 1) this result in Bradford a purely regional phenomenon, with no wider ramifications, and 2) this has nothing to do with Labour's failure to oppose, since "We've had a completely different argument from the Tories, arguing that they are cutting too far, too fast." The latter, of course, is not "a completely different argument". It is an argument which accepts the principle of austerity; which is to say, it is an argument which accepts that working class people have to put up with a generation being lost to joblessness, with tuition fees, privatization, service cuts, benefit cuts, and the evisceration of local infrastructure. The real problem is that Labour has no sense of how to oppose the coalition, because it has preemptively conceded most of the territory. This is because Labour's leadership knows that if the party wins a general election, they have no intention whatever of adopting a fundamentally different course or of significantly reversing anything the Tories now implement.
And of course, it isn't just Bradford West. There were regionally specific factors assisting Galloway's victory, above all the local hatred for the managerial, machine politics of the Labour establishment. But that machine has been in place for a long time. Nor is it just a question of Muslim voters being disaffected with Labour. The fact that some of the poorest and most oppressed workers in the UK have also been most willing to vote for left-wing candidates shouldn't even raise an eyebrow. It is obvious, or at least it should be to marxists. If it was only Muslims who could be reached on such an agenda, that might be a cause for concern, but Galloway gained more than 50% of the vote by mobilising a multiracial coalition. This was a working class vote for a left-wing mandate. It reflects not just polarization over austerity, a generational transfer of wealth from the working class to the rich, but also Labour's thus far hapless response. The landslide for the SNP and Scottish Labour's ongoing problems, particularly in Glasgow, discloses essentially the same dynamic. It has yet to be tested, but I think Plaid Cymru's new left-wing leadership could seriously strain Labour's presence in Wales. And the Greens' Brighton victory in 2010 shows that wherever there is a serious left-of-Labour challenger, Labour has something to worry about. Galloway had it right in his victory speech: Labour "must stop imagining that working people and poor people have no option but to support them if they hate the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition partners."
Of course this opens a space, no more than that, for some sort of left-of-Labour formation. We should not be thinking purely or even mainly in electoral terms. Labour's crisis is part of an organic crisis which is engulfing all the parties, and which is changing the relationship between those parties and their social base. It is not just a question of masses fleeing from old banners and flocking under new banners. Those parties which temporarily gain from social democracy's paralysis and breakdown only to emulate the social democrats in their basic mode of organization, often find themselves implicated in the same processes of breakdown. What this crisis is doing is raising the question of new modes of organization, new ways in which masses relate to parties. We know, for example, that there are going to be intense social struggles in the next few years, and orienting properly to those is even more important than exploiting electoral openings. A formation of the militant, anti-cuts left is surely a reasonable goal in these circumstances.
There's another reason why it is important to recognise and act on this opportunity now. The question of austerity was never going to be resolved solely at the level of industrial conflict. The lesson of austerity is precisely that it is at the level of politics that "that the contradictions of the economy are concentrated and that their ultimate resolution is decided." In fact, even industrial struggles aren't won or lost purely at the level of industrial conflict. Their success is partially contingent on the political 'line' that is won in those struggles, which depends on having a wider network of militants and activists plugged into every form of resistance, drawing and sharing lessons across the different fields of struggle, helping to overcome weakness and unevenness and resist the tendency of the union bureaucracy, particularly its Labour-affiliated right-wing, to retreat. That requires a degree of coordination and unity on the militant left that has thus far been lacking. More generally, the struggle against the cuts requires some degree of coordination between different levels and types of activity, and some form of organization that can negotiate a shift from one locus of struggle to another, as events progress. We have already seen that things can look very bleak in the trade unions, then a student protest comes along and changes the whole calculus. Likewise, a string of occupations can be winding down, only for a mass TUC-led anti-cuts protest to re-ignite the whole question. Or, the situation can suddenly be radically re-polarized by a series of riots, and the presence or absence of a left with some weight can make all the difference. And so on, and so on. The fact is that 'austerity' is so comprehensive in its targets that its effects are likely to appear in aleatory and unpredictable ways at various points of antagonism. Negotiating between and unifying these struggles is a strategic imperative, which is why I previously argued that the competing anti-cuts vessels of the Left should merge into a single flotilla. I would now say there is space for a political organization which is more cohesive and ambitious in its objective; not a re-make of past models, nor a revamp of existing ones, but a new formation which quite deliberately sets out to organize and reconstitute those segments of the working class that are now well to the left of official Labourism.
The main obstacle to achieving something here is not the tenacity of Labourism so much as the weakness of the organized left at this stage. But unlike the former, we can do something about the latter. We can certainly solve any problems of organization that have dogged us in the past, provided we acknowledge them. That's why the ostrich-like response of the monomaniacs who can only see Galloway's flaws, and only see the result as a victory for a vanity campaign, is particularly irresponsible. It is a moralistic abdication of the duty to engage in a concrete analysis of concrete situations, to think through the strategic possibilities, to calculate the relative gains and risks of the courses that are now open to us. As I see it, the onus is on the Left to act on this opportunity.