George Galloway is back in town, having won the Bradford West byelection by a majority of over 10,000. And that is not good news for many if not most politicians. Galloway’s victory is outstanding by any measure. A powerful performance by him would have surprised observers, but an outright win, let alone by this margin, was well off the cards. He achieved a 36.59% swing of votes from Labor to Respect, the party he formed in 2004 after being expelled from Labor for his severe criticism of its stance on the Iraq war.
Politicians, left and right, immediately started analysing what happened, treating this as another great opportunity to knock each other down. Just another tired street fight, this time triggered by Galloway’s victory. The Conservative party is busy mocking Labor for losing the seat it held for 38 years and stressing that Ed Miliband’s leadership is all but dead, Labor politicians accuse the Tories and Liberal Democrats of introducing economic policies and austerity measures that disillusioned voters, and so on. There is so much promotion of negativity and exchange of accusation and blame between politicians and no real interest in engaging with what this victory means. The truth can be liberating, but it is often equally painful.
There has been even less interest in understanding the unique phenomenon that George Galloway is in British politics. He was literally mobbed by supporters and carried on their shoulders. He later toured Bradford in an open-topped bus, with one astounded BBC reporter hilariously likening the scene to Galloway winning the FA Cup and the usual parade that follows. This is a similar observation made by a team from the Guardian newspaper:
The Guardian followed him for few hours last week as he toured the Bradford University campus and it was like being in the retinue of a Hollywood star. Every step he took, someone called out his first name and went in for a hug or asked to have their photo taken. The Guardian’s photographer, a veteran of 25 years of covering byelections, said he had never seen anything like it.
I see two main drives for the attraction of voters of Bradford West to George Galloway and his message. First, they both strongly care about certain issues. There is no question that George Galloway’s victory was driven by the large Muslim Asian vote in that constituency. These voters do strongly care about what happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of them came from there, have relatives there, and visit their countries of origin regularly. They are interested in what happened and is happening to the peoples of Palestine and Iraq, with whom they share the same religious identity. Galloway knows a great deal about what happens in the Middle East. It is not only Galloway’s opposition to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and his support for the struggle of the Palestinian people against their oppressive and brutal occupier that have endeared him to those voters. It is particularly his knowledge of facts that shatter the official version of history and his ability to articulate simple but powerful arguments that undermines the establishment’s worldview. He says what the media and politicians carefully avoid. He is willing to talk about massacres, death tolls, cheapness of the blood of innocent victims of immoral foreign policies, double standards, “occupation” instead of “conflict,” terrorism that is not defined ethnically or religiously, and so on.
Second, he is trusted and believed by voters. When Galloway speaks about what he believes, voters believe him. In an ideal world, this is a basic requirement of being a politician. In the real world, this is a unique quality that our politicians do not even dream of having. This is not a blind, uneducated kind of trust. Galloway talks about facts these voters know yet other politicians not only deny but also replace with lies. When Galloway speaks about an issue in the Middle East, what he says may contain an element of inaccuracy, but his voter knows that it is largely true. When a typical British politician speaks about the same issue, what they say may contain an element of truth, but that same voter knows it is usually inaccurate but often misleading or a lie. To explain this to people I use this stark comparison between the most famous terrorist and very famous — let’s just call them — democratically elected politicians. When talking about the situation in Palestine and Iraq, Bin Laden was far more accurate and truthful than George W. Bush or Tony Blair! This epitomizes the farcical situation we have.
British politicians have yet to acknowledge the disaster in public confidence in politicians that Blair, his government, and the colluding Westminister politicians created by the way they handled the build-up to the Iraq war, the war itself, and its aftermath. It is very difficult for them to acknowledge that almost the whole political establishment worked together this long to lie and mislead the public, let alone the potential consequences as far as international law is concerned.
The reason news reporters and others were stunned by how Galloway was treated by the voters is that politicians have done just about everything they can to earn the public’s distrust, make them view them with much suspicion, and see them out of touch. We seem to have hardly any time off from breaking news about a scandal revealing the level of corruption of politicians and how they have become self-serving. The politicians’ reaction to any of these scandals is often another scandal in its own right. I am not trying to dismiss all politicians and accuse them all of this. That would be unfair, misleading, and wrong. But politics is driven mainly by the majority not minority. If you ask someone about what their typical image of a politician, it is more than likely to be what I have just described.
It is the combination of these two factors — Galloway’s caring about issues people care about while other politicians treat almost with disdain and his having earned the trust and confidence of people — that makes voters see as one of them. This is how I understand the genuine friendliness and affinity that was on display on the streets of Bradford. This sense of seeing Galloway as one of them also reflects a sense of alienation from other politicians and the political establishment in general.
Galloway’s opponents usually accuse him of being a one-issue man rather than a proper politician. I think his long history as an MP undermines this accusation. This attempt to vilify him is nothing but a typical cynical approach by the establishment to represent the success of an outsider as his failure to be an insider. The main scenes of the issues that Galloway is concerned about may be outside this country, but those cynics forget or deliberately ignore two facts. First, these issues have a big impact on the lives of British people who live in this country. This reflects a fact about the structure of today’s British society that just cannot be ignored. People in this country have every right to be concerned about the shattered lives of other peoples, whether these happen to be in Palestine, Afghanistan, America, Bahrain, Burma, Syria, or any other country. Second, globalisation and the continuous shrinking of the world due to the development of communication and growth of trade mean that what we do abroad will always have consequences at home.
One can only hope that George Galloway’s win will help politicians reflect on themselves rather than try to analyze what is wrong with the voters. This is a question about who serves whom in politics.