Opinion

George Galloway: Rochdale MP's win has opened the door for every anti-establishment chancer

The controversial Rochdale MP might not last beyond the general election but his by-election win has had an impact that will, writes Adam Barnett

George Galloway is sworn in as Rochdale MP after by-election win

George Galloway was sworn in as an MP on Monday after his victory in last week's Rochdale by-election ruffled a few feathers in Westminster. Image: Parliament Live

The return to parliament of George Galloway – who was sworn in as Rochdale MP this week – is, as the cliche goes, a dark day for democracy, but it’s not for the reasons you might think. Galloway’s victory in last week’s by-election in Rochdale has been attributed to Muslim anger about Labour’s failure to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. While broadly correct, this contains some false and unpleasant ideas which deserve unpacking. 

Of course, for a by-election that saw Galloway drape himself in the Palestinian flag and send leaflets about Gaza to Muslim households, Labour’s ceasefire position was not irrelevant. But what’s wrong with this picture? First, it digests the result as a matter of electoral politics – specifically as a “blow to Labour”, and extrapolates too much.

In fact, Labour didn’t stand in the by-election. The party ditched its candidate Azhar Ali over his speech about Israel and “Jewish quarters” in the media, and it was too late to run another one. If hostility to Israel is what decides elections in Rochdale, why didn’t this positively help Ali’s chances? (As an independent he came fourth with 7.7% of the vote.) The Conservative Party did field a candidate, who came third. Why is this not a verdict on the government’s support for Israel’s war? 

Meanwhile, Labour’s poll lead has barely moved since the conflict began in October, and the party now basically holds the “ceasefire” position marchers are demanding. (Labour has also called Israel’s response to Hamas “beyond reasonable self-defence” and said it may have “broken international law”.) If the 2024 general election turns on a question of foreign policy, it will be the first one to do so in living memory. Voters are sadly not that internationalist. 

Second, and more importantly, if voters in Rochdale thought Labour had the wrong position, it doesn’t mean George Galloway had the right one. Galloway downplayed the 7 October atrocities, has a long history of warm relations with Hamas, and suffers from an unhealthy obsession with “Zionist” influence. Let’s not pay him any unintended compliments, or insult the good people of Rochdale by assuming they share his politics. 

This leads to the third problem, which is the lumping of Muslims together, as if they all had the same interests and opinions, and imagining them as one dangerous blob. In right-wing circles, Galloway’s election is being cynically blamed explicitly on mass immigration and Islamist extremism. 

In fact, Galloway has been doing this by-election trick since he was kicked out of the Labour Party in 2003 (for inciting violence against British troops). So this isn’t some new and scary event. You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage, but according to the 2021 census Rochdale is 74% white, with fewer than 20% of residents listing their religion as Islam. 

The conflation of politically active Muslims with “Islamism” is another grisly failure to make distinctions. Listening to the prime minister and others, you would get the impression that Islamist just means ‘bad Muslim’, rather than someone who backs a specific political movement. To put it crudely, not everyone (and not every Muslim) on a “free Palestine” protest is an Islamist. People can and do oppose Israel’s war in Gaza without supporting Hamas. But you don’t have to be an Islamist to be pro-Hamas, as Galloway and others with a communist background prove. Indeed, even the people sending MPs death threats about Gaza are not necessarily Islamists. 

Both the nice and nasty versions of this narrative buy into Galloway’s self-image as king of the Muslims. This simply won’t do. His friends in Hamas ran Gaza as a police state for Palestinians, and are rather blasé about their terrorist attacks drawing a violent Israeli response. 

George Galloway also fawned over the dictatorships of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and famously of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and has been a paid employee of the state-run media channels of Russia and Iran. Given the number of Arabs and Muslims (among others) those regimes have killed, it’s obscene to credit Galloway as a champion of Muslims’ human rights, let alone as any kind of “rebel” or democrat. 

The real danger here is not electoral – it’s to do with the political culture. After all, Galloway has won by-elections before, but he’s not been re-elected. When voters get a look at him in office (where he shows little interest in local issues), they show him the door.

But his election – and the bewildered look on the faces of Sunak, Starmer and Westminster journalists trying to interview him – reveal how vulnerable modern Britain still is to populist demagogues with no concept of the truth. 

At a time when former prime minister Liz Truss is bleating about the ‘deep state’ and ‘communists’ alongside the US far-right, and the former home secretary and deputy-chair of the Tory party warn of Islamists taking over British politics, Labour and Conservative failure to speak to public anger about the country’s real problems (and the world’s) has opened the door for every anti-establishment demagogue.

Parliament will welcome an MP with a record of supporting dictatorships, including presenting shows on state-backed media TV channels in Russia and Iran, with which the UK is indirectly at war (in Ukraine and Yemen). In the months he has before the general election, George Galloway can now use his platform to spread conspiracy theories and anti-democratic propaganda. The toxic impact of this, and of similar ideas from other chancers, will outlive the general election. 

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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