BBC Radio4 brought the news this morning that George Galloway has won the Bradford West bi-election in the UK. He did so by shamelessly pandering to the local Muslim community, prompting some to say this is a foretaste of coming Islamization as Muslim minorities grow towards majorities 1. Others reckon it was his celebrity Big Brother appearance, but I doubt it 2.
Meanwhile his fellow left-wing radical, Ken Livingston, is well analysed in a leader in The Times today 3:
Ken Livingstone is many things, but he is not a stupid person. Nor is he a stranger to political calculation….So adroit is he that he has sought to make an asset out of a weakness that has sunk lesser men: his inability to control his tongue. Through most of his career he has managed to retail this laxness as a charming refusal to dissemble. And his occasional gaffe or inappropriate act he has relabelled as an independent streak.
It is precisely this skill that makes his clash with London’s Jewish community so concerning. His relationship with Jews, never good even in the years before he was Mayor, has deteriorated to such an extent that a number of members of that community are withholding their support, even though they routinely vote Labour.
…There are two explanations for Mr Livingstone allowing himself to become embroiled in what seems an odd fight to pick. The first is that he genuinely has a problem with Jews and just cannot help himself.
…Yet awkward lack of familiarity with the sensitivities of others is hard to associate with Mr Livingstone. So a more troubling explanation presents itself. He is doing it on purpose. There are more than four times as many Muslims in London as there are Jews. Mr Livingstone may believe that he can divide and rule. He may have seen the impact that George Galloway has made with a similar strategy.
The beginnings of Mr Livingstone’s split with the Jewish community might lie in his long-held convictions, but his refusal to heal the division might be calculation of the sort that, to put it at its most gentle, he is certainly capable of. And his otherwise puzzling comments about homosexuality — that the Tory party is “riddled” with it — make more sense if viewed as part of a strategy to woo more religious Muslims.
This turns what would otherwise be a nasty squabble into an issue of importance to all London citizens and, indeed, beyond. A divisive politics that seeks to exploit tensions between religious groups for electoral gain would be a disaster, not just for the city but for the country. And it is to be hoped that Mr Livingstone will find it a disaster for him as well. Muslims value a united London, too.
You are rumbled Ken. The Galloway Gambit has worked very well in Bradford West, one of the most densely Muslim areas in Britain, but it will not work in London.
[Update: Must post these comments from The Times]
First up, this brilliant Leader from The Times:
It is probably only right, after his remarkable victory in the Bradford West by-election, to salute George Galloway’s indefatigability. This was an unexpected return to Parliament for the man who won Bethnal Green & Bow for his own Respect party in 2005, but who was thought to have ruined his political career by posing as a cat and lapping milk from the hands of the actress Rula Lenska in Celebrity Big Brother.
If only cat impersonations were the extent of Mr Galloway’s unfitness for office it might be possible to gloss over his victory in Bradford West. Unfortunately, the one thing that Mr Galloway is not is a pussy cat. His praise of Saddam Hussein in 2002, for the supposed dictatorial virtues of courage, strength and indefatigability, is notorious. He described the July 7 bombs in London as “not unpredictable”. President Assad of Syria was, in Mr Galloway’s estimation, “a breath of fresh air”.
So it is as someone with no understanding of irony that Mr Galloway described his by-election victory as “the Bradford Spring”. The electors of Bradford West ought to prepare themselves for representation of a fairly idle kind, if Mr Galloway’s record is anything to go by. The last time he was an MP, Mr Galloway managed to attend a full 8 per cent of votes in the House of Commons.
Worse than that, they have elected someone who has deliberately and dangerously exploited divisions between communities. Mr Galloway’s support for the tyrannous regimes in Iraq and Syria implies that he is prepared to avert his gaze from murder, torture and the systematic violation of the rights of citizens. They have also elected a man whose opposition to the conflict in Afghanistan seems to extend to an ambivalence even about armed attacks on British soldiers.
Beyond Mr Galloway himself, what are the wider implications at the end of a tumultuous week in British politics? Mr Galloway is a cat who prowls alone, a lone orator who attracts disciples, but he is not a man with the prowess to build a political movement. It is emphatically not true, as Mr Galloway claims, that “the people of Bradford have spoken this evening for people in inner cities everywhere”. There are few seats, if any at all, in which the politics of the far Left can combine with still sore grievances over the Iraq war.
Mr Galloway’s targeting of the Asian community, especially through its postal votes, was his tactic in Bradford, as it has been before in London. It appears to have inspired an unusually large turnout of 50 per cent. These are rare circumstances, so it would be wrong to leap to the conclusion that Bradford West was a thorough indictment of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. That said, a swing against Labour of 36 per cent is hardly a vote of confidence. It is no great commendation to preside over the first loss of a by-election by the official Opposition since 2000. The greater worry for Mr Miliband, however, is that when the Conservative vote collapses, as it did by 22 per cent, the malcontents are not going straight over to Labour. This appears, on a national scale, to be the lesson of the political movements of the week gone by.
In the longer run, Mr Galloway’s victory may illustrate a trend away from the two main political tribes. In 2010 Labour and the Conservatives gained 66 per cent of the vote, the lowest proportion since 1922. The Liberal Democrat vote has halved since 2010 but its vote is more concentrated than ever before. The stranglehold of the big parties is slipping and “other parties” are growing.
Mr Galloway will now begin another of his political lives. If his victory acts as an alarm bell to the mainstream parties, perhaps something will have been salvaged from this week. However, the discussion about kitchen supper, pasties and jerry cans has been put into proper perspective by the election to Parliament in Bradford West of a thoroughly undesirable Member.
In the small hours of yesterday morning George Galloway took to the stage in West Yorkshire and declared the “Bradford Spring” — an “uprising” of the ordinary people against the political establishment.
As ever with Mr Galloway, those who knew anything about him were impressed mostly by his shamelessness. This was the man who, as the Arab Spring got under way in Syria, continued to express his admiration for the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad as a man of “reforming zeal” possessed of “a vision of Syria as a genuinely independent Arab country”.
None of that had mattered to a majority of those who voted in the Bradford West by-election. If solidarity with oppressed Muslims abroad was part of the Galloway appeal, such fellow feeling clearly did not extend to the people of Homs. As it did not to those taking such risks for democracy in Iran — a country for whose state propaganda outfit, Press TV, Mr Galloway has in his time done much service.
So what did matter? Why have Bradfordians wound up with the slate-voiced pussy of the Big Brother house as their Member of Parliament? Asked about his victory and her party’s defeat on the radio yesterday morning, Harriet Harman referred several times to the “particular problems” of the constituency but declined to specify what these were. It seems to me, however, that such circumspection is unnecessary.
Mr Galloway would not have stood in Bradford West had it not contained a very substantial Muslim population. In the general election of 2005 he fought and won the seat of Bethnal Green & Bow. The Muslim population there was about 40 per cent and he won with 36 per cent of the vote. In 2010 he stood in Poplar, East London, where the Muslim community represents something above 33 per cent. There was no collapse in the Tory vote and Mr Galloway came third with 17 per cent.
He passed on all the previous by-elections in this parliament, standing only for the Scottish Parliament last May, where his party achieved a vote share of 3 per cent (the Muslim population of Glasgow is about 3 per cent, but most will have voted for other parties). Then along comes Bradford West, where the census of 2001 showed a Muslim community of about 38 per cent.
So Mr Galloway is a specialist targeter of British Muslim votes. The idea spread around by his Respect colleagues that his principal attraction was his anti-austerity stance doesn’t bear even cursory examination. And indeed in Bradford some of his appeal to the voters was couched in sectional and religious language unprecedented in the past 60 years of British politics. One of his leaflets began thus: “God KNOWS who is a Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not. Instinctively, so do you. Let me point out to all the Muslim brothers and sisters what I stand for.”
Further down Mr Galloway laid claim to leading the decent, pious life: “I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if you believe the other candidate in this election can say that truthfully.”
While readers pick themselves up off the floor, I should add that those who have followed Mr Galloway for years will smile at the omission of adultery from the list of vices he abjures. I should just add that almost no Galloway event or pronouncement is now complete without several invocations of “Allah” in one form or another.
To get an idea of the strangeness of this, try to imagine a campaign in Hendon South where the winning candidate addresses voters with the sentiment “G-d knows who is a Jew and who is not”, boasts to the electorate that he keeps kosher and then implies that his opponent has been spotted mixing milk and meat. Such religiosity is rarely seen in British politics, thank the Eternal One, the Lord of Hosts.
But why would Mr Galloway think such an approach would work? John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, wrote yesterday about campaigning in Toller ward in Bradford. “The 5 per cent of our target Labour promises who are white were rock solid,” he found, “but the 95 per cent of promises that were Asian names were rather different … probably not a Labour vote.”
Mr Mann analysed part of the failure. “What was particularly disconcerting was having no Muslim doorknockers, no Urdu speaker, no hijab-wearing woman talking to Muslim women voters. Indeed that abiding memory was of a terribly deprived area where Galloway supporters, often in traditional dress codes, rallied their voters.”
But the Labour candidate was also a Muslim — from Toller. What he couldn’t do, however, was what Mr Galloway is so good at — rousing popular anger at the Establishment (of which Labour is inevitably part) and playing on a sense of grievance and victimhood that is particular to some Muslim communities. The reason why Iraq, for instance, evokes a response but Mr Galloway’s backing for the killers of Muslims in Syria does not, is because it fits a narrative of Muslims being oppressed by outsiders. In a sense it creates an internal community solidarity that would otherwise be eroded by the modern condition of Britain.
Some of this may explain why Ken Livingstone has managed to have a run-in with some of London’s Jews. Not only has he been oddly insensitive to the Jewish community but at the same time he has courted Muslim opinion with a creepy assiduity. This culminated in his speech to the Finsbury Park mosque two weeks ago in which Ken promised to “educate the mass of Londoners” in the teachings of Islam. Speaking about Muhammad’s last sermon, he told the audience: “I want to spend the next four years making sure that every non-Muslim in London knows and understands [its] words and message.”
It may be that Ken has, unnoticed, made similar promises to Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Methodists, Mormons, Scientologists and everyone else about their prophets and gurus. But we doubts it, my Precious, don’t we, because we knows that there are no voteses in it.
Mr Galloway’s victory shows something else too that has nothing to do with communalism. As Ed Miliband pointed out, only 4 in 10 Bradford voters opted for the three main parties. When something else plausible and exciting comes along (even if it is only a dictator-loving retread demagogue), many, many voters would like to flirt with it.
And that’s why we have back in Parliament a man whose first tweet after the election read: “Long live Iraq. Long live Palestine, free, Arab, dignified.” Uninterested in domestic concerns, George Galloway is probably the first Arab Nationalist to be elected to the British Parliament. He is far too flawed and too unusual to be a harbinger of mass gallowayism. He is the florid symptom of a problem — the pustule, but not the disease.