Britain: `Now is the time to seize the opportunity' of George Galloway's win in Bradford

[For more discussion around George Galloway's re-election and the left's response, click HERE.]

By Andrew Burgin

April 4, 2012 -- Socialist Unity -- The victory of the Respect Party in the Bradford West by-election opens up politics in Britain in a way not seen for many decades. The scale of the victory was remarkable. George Galloway’s vote surpassed that of all the three main parties added together. This was a new development and entirely unpredicted even by those close to the campaign itself.

When a young campaigner working for Respect in Bradford rang her mother a few days before the vote and told her that she felt there was a real chance that George would win, her mother, a seasoned political activist herself, thought her daughter had lost all political direction. The truth is that nobody saw this juggernaut coming not least the left itself.

And because it is a new and unexpected development it demands that we re-examine long-held and well-established understandings of political life and draw the necessary tactical and strategic conclusions.

The commentary on the left has largely welcomed the victory of the people in Bradford albeit with a number of reservations. These centre both on the person of Galloway himself and on the history of Respect but the assessments largely ignore the specificity of Respect’s achievement in Bradford. For the left the victory is a sign that other ‘real’ organisational developments in the class struggle are now possible. So from the Socialist Workers Party’s Richard Seymour we have this:

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….

And from Counterfire’s James Meadway this:

It is this possibility of a new left that Galloway’s result herald. For Britain, it will combine opposition to wars abroad with opposition to austerity at home: genuine internationalism, and a radical defence of the gains working people have won. This new left may not arrive through the traditional channels, drawing in alongside militant trade unionists activists from Occupy, the anti-war movement, and some of the existing far left.

Or from Nick Wrack this:

More worrying for the Labour leadership than Galloway’s victory is the prospect of large numbers of trade union members decamping to another party.

The new party Nick means is the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), not Respect. The TUSC is an electoral alliance which includes transport union leader Bob Crow and Matt Wrack and the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. We’ll see in the forthcoming elections whether the Galloway victory in Bradford translates into increased support for the TUSC. At the 2010 general election TUSC candidates generally polled significantly less than 1% of the vote.

The problem with all these assessments of the Respect victory is that despite saying many correct things they all neglect to deal with what must be the central issue of the moment – that perhaps Respect itself can become the serious political party to the left of Labour that is so vital to the advance of the interests of the working class in Britain today. That Respect may fill – or be a significant part of filling – that political space that many have identified but none have successfully entered.

In Bradford more than 18,000 people voted for an anti-war and anti-austerity program. They voted not for the "possibility" of something new but for an existing political organisation which had stood in the previous general election. For a party with a recognisable brand which clearly has a resonance far beyond the "left", that has broken into layers of support that other left organisations have hitherto only dreamed of. That draws on the best elements and traditions of those organisations but also encompasses something new from 21st century politics which enables it to become qualitatively different. As a result of this, the campaign empowered new layers of political activists. Women across the generations entered political life often for the first time and together with young working class people worked tirelessly for Respect in Bradford.

And the victory was largely down to these newly activated political forces.

They upset the Tammany Hall patronage that Labour so often relies on in its "safe" seats and rejected the false assumption that anti-war and anti-cuts voters have nowhere else to go. They put forward a clear anti-cuts, anti-imperialist message with which no one on the left appears to take issue.

So to say to Respect, as the left seems to be doing, that they have done very well in Bradford but now other people need to create a new organisation to do exactly what Respect has already successfully done, seems quite extraordinary.

No doubt Respect, itself a much reduced body in organisational capability from that of 2005, will struggle to integrate those who now want to join the party and take their place in its ranks. What a problem to have!

Surely nobody in their right mind will expect the party that achieved this to dissolve itself or stand aside because some on the left now see the possibility of building a new political organisation. Hundreds of people have joined Respect in the last week and they are joining on the basis of the politics laid out in Bradford West and the way in which the community was engaged. This should be the starting point for the entire left: anti-imperialist and anti-austerity politics together with a breaking of the boundaries of the left’s narrow expectations and vision.

RESPECT is clearly part of the solution to a historic problem.

There cannot be a multiplicity of successful new political formations. A choice has to be made in the wake of such a phenomenal victory.

Tariq Ali, as usual, comes closest to the actuality of the situation when he writes,

Respect is different. It puts forward a leftist social-democratic programme that challenges the status quo and is loud in its condemnation of imperial misdeeds.

And he locates the basis for the new politics following the collapse of communism,

Throughout the heartlands of capital, we witnessed the emergence of effective coalitions: as ever, the Republicans and Democrats in the United States; New Labour and Tories in the vassal state of Britain; socialists and conservatives in France; the German coalitions of one variety or another, with the greens differentiating themselves largely as ultra-Atlanticists; and the Scandinavian centre-right and centre-left with few differences, competing in cravenness before the empire. In virtually every case the two- or three-party system morphed into an effective national government.

Across crisis-ridden, austerity-driven Europe an exciting alternative politics is emerging. What Bradford revealed and what the political situation throughout Europe reveals is that social-democratic parties which have gone over to the side of capital so wholeheartedly are no longer able to count on the support of their traditional membership and are beginning to fracture. New political formations have been evolving to fill the political space they have vacated. New parties of the working class – not revolutionary socialist but containing revolutionary socialists – are being built across Europe and are achieving significant political and electoral success.

In France, the Front de Gauche stands at 15% in the polls for the presidential election, in Germany there is Die Linke and the Pirate Party both at around 10%, in Greece parties of the left could take the government in the forthcoming election if they united under a single banner. Such developments have been notably absent in Britain but they are essential if the devastating policies currently being imposed upon us are to be rejected and reversed.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity presented by the Respect victory in Bradford and work together to build upon it, to overcome past differences – no matter how difficult this may appear at first sight to be – and to help empower the working people of Britain with the political expression and action necessary for the crisis times in which we live. The working class requires no less and a failure to do this will consign the left to a marginal existence on the fringes of political life.

[Andrew Burgin is a prominent anti-war and anti-cuts activist, and a dealer in "political posters and ephemera".]