England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Rochdale is a blow to the establishment, but is Galloway an alternative?

By Matt Kilsby, Socialist Alternative Manchester

George Galloway’s decisive victory in the Rochdale by-election, standing for the Workers’ Party of Britain (WPB), is a huge blow to the establishment parties and particularly to Keir Starmer’s leadership. Galloway won 39.7% of the vote share, which is more than Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories managed between them (26.7%). Significantly, in second place came David Tully, an independent candidate who runs a vehicle repair garage and campaigned to reinstate the hospital maternity ward (21.3%). 

Establishment rejected

The votes for Galloway and Tully represent a significant rejection of the establishment parties and are a sign of the anger amongst working class people over a huge number of issues, and not just the atrocities being committed in Gaza. 

The Labour Party has been very quick to play down the result and has stated that they would have won if they had stood a candidate, but the loss of their almost 10,000 majority from the last election is a damning indictment on Keir Starmer’s position on Gaza. Whilst it is unlikely that this swing against Labour will be replicated in enough seats across the country to jeopardise a victory in the general election, many Labour MPs in areas with large Asian and Muslim populations will now be panicking.

Labour, of course, didn’t have a candidate after they belatedly withdrew support for Azhar Ali when the press reported on allegedly antisemitic comments he had made at a local party meeting. Starmer’s handling of the matter is an insight into his entirely unprincipled weaponisation of antisemitism to attack and silence the Labour left. 

Starmer chaos

As a Starmer loyalist, Ali received the full backing of the party when he apologised for his comments and, just a few hours afterwards, Lisa Nandy was dispatched to Rochdale to campaign alongside him. It was only after details came to light of other allegedly antisemitic comments made at the same meeting, that Starmer begrudgingly pulled his support. Contrast that with the treatment of the left-wing MP Andy Macdonald, who was suspended for declaring at a Gaza protest: “We won’t rest until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea can live in peaceful liberty.” Similarly, Kate Osamoor had the whip withdrawn for describing the brutal Israeli onslaught on Gaza as a genocide.

The weaponising of antisemitism in such a way by the Blarites in the Labour Party completely undermines the fight against real antisemitism, at a time when hate crimes and Islamophobia are on the rise. As socialists, we stand against all forms of racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, in Britain and across the world. We call for a united struggle of workers and youth against all forms of racism and ‘divide and rule’. 

Galloway’s reactionary campaign

Galloway’s victory can rightly be seen as a protest against Starmer’s Labour and the rest of the establishment parties, but it is also accurate to state that he won with a campaign that combined demands on issues such as the war on Gaza and the NHS, alongside a divisive, right-wing approach. In his campaign letters to voters, Galloway stated: “First and foremost, I believe in Britain. I believe in family. I am a father of six children. And I don’t like some of the things they are teaching our children. I believe in men and women. God created everything in pairs. Unlike the mainstream parties, I have no difficulty in defining what a woman is. A man cannot become a woman just by declaring as such. I believe in law and order. I will fight for more and smarter policing. There will be no grooming gangs on my watch. Even if I have to arrest them myself.” One of his letters concluded with a Trump-esque promise to “MAKE ROCHDALE GREAT AGAIN”.

This campaign was similar to the hugely divisive one that he ran in the 2021 Batley and Spen by-election that was narrowly won by Labour. During that campaign, Galloway complained that Labour was “infatuated with trans rights”, disgracefully labelling campaigns against transphobia and oppression as “transmania”. At the same time, his WPB states that it is “for the workers, not the wokers” and against the “apocalyptic green hysteria that floods the media”. Such reactionary politics is guaranteed to sow division among the working class. This approach of resting on reactionary ideas to shore up a base is dangerous and points in a direction firmly away from the creation of political representation for recent movements fighting for the needs of workers and all the oppressed in society.

How to not approach Galloway

Despite all this, some on the left have chosen to ignore this and mistakenly thrown themselves behind the campaign with vague references to having differences with Galloway. Before the election, the Socialist Party came out in support of Galloway and called for a vote for him, on the basis that he was “the only anti-austerity, anti-war candidate on the ballot paper”. However, the fact that Galloway felt able and happy to appeal to voters on such an unprincipled, reactionary basis shows how his ‘Workers Party’ outfit is not a vehicle which can be used to further the interests of the whole working class. 

After the result was announced the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) – the WPB are observers on TUSC’s steering committee – claimed that Galloway’s victory “…will raise the confidence of all those looking for a working-class socialist alternative to Labour”, and appealed for more candidates to stand for them in this year’s local and general elections.

Whilst we don’t downplay the rejection of the establishment parties shown in Rochdale, workers should be clear that Galloway’s politics offer no way forward, particularly because he has no interest in fighting oppression. In addition, and like all recent by-elections, the turnout in Rochdale was only 39.7%, which is 20% less than at the 2019 general election. There is obvious anger with the establishment parties, but the generally low turnouts also point to a general disenchantment with electoral politics.

What should an alternative to the parties of war and austerity look like? 

Despite our strong criticisms of the campaign and programme of George Galloway and the WPB, there is no doubt that it will raise the sights of many of those who have attended recent protests, that it is possible to challenge the big parties and win. Coupled with the enthusiasm that has been shown for the idea of Jeremy Corbyn making a challenge at the next election – there is very real potential, if it is organised on the correct basis. As we wrote in our report of the recent demonstration in Birmingham:

“If firm plans were drawn up from figures with authority in the movement (including Corbyn) to launch a new anti-war, anti-austerity party it would gain a huge response. A new political organisation would help give expression, focus and strength to the anti-war movement, as well as helping to serve as a democratic forum to discuss the way forward, rooted in the mass movement. Its appeal would be great, and greater still if it adopted clear socialist policies on the questions of war, climate change, for workers and refugee rights and against the Tories divisive so-called ‘culture wars’.” 

We need a party that fights for all working class people

A new party of struggle – against imperialist war, against austerity and cuts, fighting for workers’ rights and campaigning against the Tory so-called ‘culture wars’ – would be a huge boost for our movements and the working class. We oppose Galloway’s approach on trans rights and women’s rights because it damages working class unity and is a barrier to building the united working class movement we need. Any genuine working class alternative needs to inscribe the fight against exploitation and all forms of oppression clearly and boldly on its banner. 

We would welcome and support any steps organised by trade unionists, anti-war campaigners, and all those committed to fighting for an opposition against capitalism, to bring together a genuine left voice to begin the discussions on how this can be built. 

Such a party must be part of the struggle, to coordinate and escalate actions, whether they be against the atrocities in Gaza, opposing attacks on trade union rights, or continued attacks on the climate. It must also be made up from working class communities, as well as being democratic and open. This would mean the right to recall any elected officials, and all elected leaders should only take the average wage of the people they represent. This will keep them linked in with the struggle, and not separate from the wider class struggle.

Only by building this party, opposed to capitalism, and fighting for a socialist alternative, would working class people be able to put an end to the precarity of the world we live in, full of war, imperialism, poverty, racism, gender and LGBTQ+ oppression.

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