London Letter

The Return of George Galloway

By-elections are strange things in the United Kingdom, not for their infrequency—there have been fifty-eight since the Conservatives returned to power in 2010—but because each one shines a great deal of light on a single seat at a given moment. In addition to the normal range of candidates from all the major parties, by-elections tend to attract a coterie of self-promoters and eccentrics to stand as candidates and bask in some tiny bit of the limelight. The recent success of socialist firebrand George Galloway in the Rochdale by-election caused by the death of the much-respected Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd is just the latest example, and the campaign did not fail to produce some bizarre aspects and intriguing results.

The late Sir Tony had himself come to hold the seat by somewhat circuitous means. Lloyd had first been elected a Manchester MP in 1983, switching from the Stretford constituency to Manchester Central in 1997 before standing down in 2012 to successfully run as Labour’s candidate in the first-ever race for Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner. “PCCs” are an innovation from the start of David Cameron’s premiership (2010 to 2016), the idea of which is not to run local policing but to scrutinise it and hold chief constables accountable to a representative backed up by the legitimacy of a democratic vote. (In human terms, they are paid more than MPs and face much less scrutiny while doing far less work.)

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Cameron’s sidekick and Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, pushed a further reform to local government by encouraging a series of directly elected mayors to increase visibility and accountability in metropolitan areas often divided amongst a series of local and urban councils, with a view towards enabling major infrastructure projects and—the eternal catchphrase of British politics—“joined-up government”. A much-respected name with a technocratic record, Tony Lloyd sidestepped from his role as Police and Crime Commissioner to be named interim mayor when the Greater Manchester Combined Authority was erected.

In the meantime, Rochdale—another Manchester seat—had been won back from the Liberal Democrats by Labour candidate Simon Danczuk, a factory worker turned mature-age student, trade unionist, and eventually public relations consultant. In 2014, Danczuk co-wrote Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith, exposing the sexual abuse of children by the morbidly obese Liberal politician Sir Cyril Smith, who had represented Rochdale in Parliament from 1972 to 1993. At a weight of over 400 pounds quite possibly the largest man ever elected to Parliament, Smith was a lifelong bachelor who was known to have engaged in consensual bottom-smacking in private establishments dedicated to that sort of thing, but police investigations into his other activities had been repeatedly dropped. He died aged 82 in 2010 with, so far as the law was concerned, an unblemished record until Danczuk revealed a history of Smith physically and sexually abusing boys in a hostel for troubled youths he had co-founded. The expository book was serialised in the Daily Mail, while the Sunday Times named it Political Book of the Year for 2014.

Rochdale’s town hall—praised by Nikolaus Pevsner and with stained glass by William Morris—is considered one of the paragons of Victorian municipal architecture and emblematic of an age when boroughs across an increasingly prosperous Britain took immense pride in their local communities. Today the town has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the United Kingdom. While most of Rochdale’s population are white, a third are from an “Asian” background, a term in Britain usually indicating origins from the Indian subcontinent (rather than countries further east). In Rochdale most of these are Muslim and concentrated in a handful of neighbourhoods.

Rochdale’s recent history might lead one to conclude it is somehow a psychogeographically cursed location when it comes to sexual abuse. Since the 2000s, nineteen British men from Pakistani backgrounds have been convicted of sex offences, including rape and sex trafficking, as part of the Rochdale “grooming gang” that targeted primarily white girls. Greater Manchester Police were accused of turning a blind eye to the offences because of the ethnic origin of those accused, out of fear of being condemned for racism. Margaret Oliver, a detective constable who investigated the grooming gangs, resigned in 2012 out of her disgust with the police and prosecutors’ failure to combat sexual exploitation. Sara Rowbotham worked as a front-line sexual health worker between 2004 and 2014 and made 181 referrals outlining the abuse and grooming of young people in Rochdale. She testified to a subsequent inquiry that her warnings of systematic and organised exploitation of young girls were repeatedly ignored.

The grooming gang revelations and Danczuk’s own exposé of his predecessor’s abuse unfolded across the early 2010s. In a strange plot twist, attention was soon turned on the MP himself. Credible reports emerged in December 2015 that Danczuk had exchanged sexually explicit messages with a seventeen-year-old girl following the collapse of his second marriage, leading the Labour party to suspend his membership. It was later announced he would not be the party’s candidate at the 2017 snap election called by Prime Minister Theresa May. The scandal-free old reliable Sir Tony Lloyd was drafted in as a last-minute replacement and held the seat for Labour until his natural demise in January this year.

And so: a by-election. Situated in broadly left-leaning Manchester, since the early 1960s Rochdale has been a red-yellow marginal seat that Labour and the Liberal Democrats would each have about an even shot of nabbing. It stuck with the Liberals after Cyril Smith stood down in 1992 but went Labour in 1997, Lib Dem in 2005, and back to Labour with Danczuk in 2010. The voters threw the pattern book out the window for the 2015 general election: the Labour MP was re-elected, but with a pro-Brexit UKIP candidate (from a British Asian background) coming second—presaging the Brexit tide that surged in the 2016 referendum. The Liberal Democrats were relegated to fourth place after the Conservative candidate.

UKIP was taken over by an immoderate and racist-adjacent fringe in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum, leading its prominent former leader Nigel Farage to start a new grouping. The Brexit Party put candidates up for the—somewhat redundant to Britons—European Parliament elections of 2019, just months before the UK was scheduled to leave the EU, and managed to send twenty-nine MEPs to Brussels. With Brexit finally achieved, the party rebranded as “Reform UK”, collecting non-racist UKIP elected officials alongside disaffected Tories as well as others who felt unrepresented and were in search of a populist outlet. By-elections are often used by voters to express their disaffection with the governing party, and Reform began to sweep up numbers of voters sizeable enough to worry Conservative HQ. February 2024’s Wellingborough by-election, for example, saw the Reform UK candidate Ben Habib take 13 per cent of the vote to the Conservatives’ 24.6 per cent with Labour winning on 45.9 per cent.

Eyes were on Reform to see who they’d put up for Rochdale and how well they’d do. To the surprise of many, they chose as their candidate … the former Rochdale Labour MP Simon Danczuk, despite the scandal of his explicit texting of a minor not to mention further allegations (of which, to be fair, he has so far been cleared). Within the Labour party Danczuk had been critical of the far-left turn under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, but his signing up to stand as the parliamentary candidate of a populist party generally viewed as leaning strongly rightward raised eyebrows, as did Reform’s willingness to embrace him.

Labour selected Azhar Ali, the uncontroversial leader of their group on Lancashire County Council. The Conservatives put up Paul Ellison, a well-known proprietor of a local landscaping firm, the Liberals likewise out up local man Iain Donaldson (nineteen years a Manchester councillor), while a popular vehicle repair shop owner named David Tully decided to throw his hat in the ring as well. But the undeniable star of the Rochdale by-election was no local: it was the Scottish-born George Galloway.

Here is no newbie to British politics. Galloway was elected in 1981 as the youngest-ever chairman of the Scottish Labour party at the age of twenty-six. By 1987, he was Member of Parliament for Glasgow Hillhead, defeating the big dog Roy Jenkins who went on to become the first (and, thanks to Brexit, only) British president of the European Commission. Galloway had early on obtained a reputation as a bit of a Flash Harry while parading his politics as those of the far Left. As chief executive of the anti-poverty campaigning charity War on Want he held their annual conference on the Greek resort island of Mykonos. Cornered by a reporter months after his election, Galloway admitted he was accompanied by many women on the trip, “some of whom were known carnally to me”. He and his first wife separated soon afterwards.

More famous among Galloway’s various travels was his 1994 trip to Baghdad where the MP deployed his typically florid oratorical style on flattering the dictator Saddam Hussein. “Your Excellency, Mister President,” Galloway churned, “I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.” He had less-flattering words for his arch-enemy, the neo-conservative commentator Christopher Hitchens, whom he attacked as a “drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay” in a debate in Washington in 2005.

By this time Galloway had abandoned his long allegiance to the Labour Party, largely as a result of Tony Blair’s adherence to the American-led invasion of Iraq. He continued first as an independent MP before founding the Respect party, involving many of the elements of the Stop the War Coalition of far-Left opponents of the Second Gulf War. When his constituency of Glasgow Kelvin was abolished for the 2005 election, he stood instead in the heavily Muslim seat of Bow and Bethnal Green, narrowly defeating the sitting (half-black half-Jewish) Labour MP Oona King in a campaign in which King alleged anti-Jewish racism amongst Respect party volunteers. Galloway’s party collapsed when his faction fell out with that led by the Respect-aligned Socialist Workers’ Party (whose leader at the time was later accused of sexually assaulting several female colleagues) and he fulfilled his promise not to stand for the same seat when the next election came round in 2010. The Scotsman returned to Parliament just two years later when the resignation of a sitting Labour MP for Bradford West, a constituency rich in Muslim votes, sparked a by-election. At the 2015 general election his majority was overturned by Labour candidate Naz Shah in a vicious campaign in which Galloway alleged Shah had falsified facts regarding her forced marriage at the age of fifteen.

Galloway loves a fight and has admitted he prefers election campaigns to the “tedium” of actually serving as a Member of Parliament. He has a certain old-fashioned eloquence and charisma that has even won him begrudging hate-followers on the Right. He has been able to persuade many British Muslims to vote for him in elections. Following the 2019 defeat of Jeremy Corbyn by Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson, Galloway founded the Workers Party of Great Britain—his latest one-man band. When the by-election was announced, the Rochdale constituency with its large minority of Muslim voters was too tempting a prize for Galloway to resist standing as a candidate.

In Rochdale, the Labour candidate Azhar Ali had an unblemished record of moderation, without a hint of the racism against Jews which commentators in the Centre and on the Right—often with strong corroboration—argue flourishes in Labour-voting Muslim circles. A recording was then discovered of him claiming that Israel knew about the October 7 atrocities committed by Hamas but allowed them to take place in order to “green light” an invasion of Gaza. The Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer has been commendably ruthless in deploying the internal levers of his party apparatus to remove and deselect Labour candidates or office-holders with beyond-the-pale views. Here in Rochdale, Labour HQ faced a quandary. Their candidate, judging by his past, was ostensibly not an anti-Semitic extremist but may have felt forced to make radical statements in order to shore up his credibility before an electorate in which a large number of voters are undoubtedly much more sympathetic to Hamas than to its victims. But the revelations came too late to actually replace Mr Ali’s name on the ballot as the Labour candidate—who by that time had retracted his comments and apologised. On February 12, they made the difficult decision to withdraw official support for Azhar Ali.

On the day itself, Galloway emerged victorious with his 12,335 votes, taking 39.7 per cent of the electoral pie. Local independent David Tully came second with 21.3 per cent—making this the first by-election in Great Britain since 1945 in which neither of the two best-performing candidates were from the Labour, Conservative or Liberal parties. The Tory candidate scraped through with 12 per cent, the disavowed-Labour Azhar Ali on 7.7 per cent, the Lib Dem on 7 per cent, and Reform’s poor Simon Danczuk 6.3 per cent.

Despite the allegations of sexism, racism, sympathy with terrorism, and demagoguery, George Galloway is still capable of deploying exceptional personal charm—while remaining a ruthless street campaigner. He has exploited the ambiguity as to his religious views by writing in an electoral leaflet, “God KNOWS who is a Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not.” (As it happens, when most recently taking the oath of allegiance as an MP, he swore on the Authorised King James Version of the Bible.) It is useful to Galloway that he is a teetotaller: he gave up alcohol aged eighteen having observed the effect an excess of it had on members of his own family and those in the community around him. Galloway has blamed his infidelities and profuse womanising on being sexually abused by an army officer when he was twelve years old. This incident sparked a “lifelong fear of being gay” which Galloway claims “led me into ostentatious, rapacious heterosexual promiscuity”.

While a socialist politically, Galloway also professes to uphold the banner of social conservatism. “The Labour party can’t agree what a woman is,” he told an interviewer during the Rochdale campaign, referring to Sir Keir Starmer’s long reluctance to uphold the biological view of sex. “As a father of six children, I’m socially conservative,” Galloway says. “I don’t want my children taught the kind of things Labour wants to teach them in schools.” When it comes to his native Scotland, Galloway is a staunch unionist who believes the country’s natural place is firmly in a socialist United Kingdom.

Galloway may be a sign of the weakening of the near-universal hold liberal progressivism has had on the European Left. Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s nostalgic Covid-sceptic presidential campaign in America is intriguing but his impact has been limited. In Germany, Sahra Wagenknecht has recently carved out a niche in the political spectrum similar to Galloway’s. When East Germany’s communist party, the SED, transformed into the Party of Democratic Socialism following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wagenknecht—then in her twenties—was chosen for its national executive. Elected to the Bundestag in 2009 for the PDS’s successor party, Die Linke, she was a member of the most far-Left of the party’s factions, the Communist Platform.

Growing disagreements with her own party—even though she was co-leader of its parliamentary grouping—led her to start the cumbersomely monikered “Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance—For Reason and Justice” which registered as a political party earlier this year. Wagenknecht opposed economic sanctions against Russia and has called for NATO to be disbanded. Economically, she puts herself firmly in the anti-capitalist camp, while on social issues she has criticised Germany’s incessantly welcoming policy towards supposed refugees, especially in the light of the 2015 sexual assaults in Cologne. Her party has recruited mainly from Die Linke backgrounds, but America’s trendy-socialist Jacobin magazine claims she is drawing support that formerly went to the hard-right Alternative for Germany party which has achieved electoral success mostly in the former East Germany. Whatever the truth, disaffected, culturally cautious, anti-establishment Germans will now have political options on both the Left and the Right at election time.

Ireland, in a much more muted way, witnessed a similar phenomenon somewhat earlier when Sinn Féin’s Peadar Tóibín defied his party whips over the legalisation of abortion in 2018. Tóibín founded Aontú (Irish for “unity”) as an all-Ireland vehicle for socially conservative republicanism, supporting a united Ireland, the right to life, and a broadly social democratic vision of “economic justice”. In the years since its foundation Aontú has met with limited electoral success. The recent Dublin riots show that tensions over immigration are running strong amongst working-class Irish, and the rejection of two soft-liberal constitutional amendments in the March 2024 referendums is a new indicator of growing disquiet amongst Irish voters.

Tempting though it is to view Galloway’s victory as part of a European trend, the circumstances are distinct. Galloway has figured out that chasing after a politically radicalised but culturally non-revolutionary subset of voters from immigrant Muslim backgrounds highly concentrated in certain constituencies can be a successful strategy. But these constituencies are few overall.

The next general election is less than a year away. The Labour opposition is hog-tied to metropolitan liberalism (and consequent support for mass immigration) while the Conservative government has presided over unprecedented levels of both legal and illegal migration. More central to the future of British politics than George Galloway’s success is that a vast swathe of moderate voters—socially cautious and lacking economic prospects—may be left feeling they have no viable electoral option to form the next government of the United Kingdom.

Andrew Cusack wrote his London Letter in the March issue on the National Trust


2 thoughts on “The Return of George Galloway

  • norsaint says:

    With regard to Labour candidate Azhar Ali claiming that Israel knew about the October 7 atrocities committed by Hamas but allowed them to take place in order to “green light” an invasion of Gaza.”
    Who’s to say he’s wrong? Not sure why this should be deemed an “beyond-the-pale viewpoint.

  • David Isaac says:

    Farage resigned from UKIP straight after the Brexit referendum in 2016 and restarted his own ‘Brexit party’ in 2018 as a goad to force the ‘so-called’ Conservative Party into an absolute commitment to Brexit. Farage’s party was on track to destroy the Tories in Britain’s anti-democratic non-preferential system until a deal was struck to effectively implode the new popular party and vacate the field on the condition of a public absolute commitment from Johnson. . None of this has stopped the ongoing replacement of native Britons with immivaders from Asia and Africa. Only the influx of Europeans has slowed somewhat. As it happens the figureheads of government in Britain are now all non-European foreigners but this insanity really took off under Blair, Brown and then Cameron, May and Johnson. Cui bono?

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