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Editorial: Galloway’s big win in Rochdale could be a fork in the road for British politics

BY-ELECTION results are not necessarily the most perfect indicators of likely general election results, but George Galloway’s stunning victory in the Rochdale contest highlights factors which have an important national significance.

As the victorious candidate said, it is a victory for the Palestinian people and for Gaza. But it is also a powerful blow against the consensus politics of the Establishment “parties of government.” It reflects the deep crisis of legitimacy that decades of neoliberalism, austerity and war have produced.

As the mainstream media suppressed coverage of the Rochdale campaign, local issues joined with a heightened sensitivity to global politics to produce a thoroughgoing rejection of Westminster-style politics.

It would be wrong to characterise Galloway’s votes as exclusively harvested by his long-standing anti-imperialism and his solidarity with the Palestinian people. At slightly below 40 per cent and with a total bigger than the Westminster parties combined, it was also a pointed expression of the deep alienation of much of working-class Britain from consensus politics.

The 6,000 votes cast for a local independent candidate that otherwise might have gone to the “parties of government” are another expression of this sentiment.

Turnout in Rochdale was higher than usual for by-elections. Drill deeper into the statistics and we find that the highest-ever Labour vote in Rochdale was won by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in 2017 and that even the subsequent campaign of character assassination that the former Labour leader endured only eroded the 2019 votes by a small margin and resulted in the second-highest Labour vote ever recorded in this overwhelmingly working-class town.

There are some signs that people in the Labour Party are beginning to grasp the depth of the crisis of working-class confidence in Labour.

The logic of the first-past-the-post electoral system inevitably results in a powerful subjective pressure to corral progressive and working-class voters around whoever wears the red and yellow rosette. This is an objective fact of politics everywhere — until it isn’t.

Labour’s collapse in Scotland was a demonstration of this increasingly salient fact of political life.

Keir Starmer’s sabotage of the pledge to respect the referendum result was another factor in alienating working-class support.

The block-headed loyalty much of Westminster Labour gives to the new cold war foreign policies of the Anglo-US corporate coalition has cost the party much of its political capital.

Labour may become the next government less by its own efforts and more by the collapse in the credibility of the Tories as a party of government, while our ruling-class increasingly demonstrates a measure of confidence that the continuity of capitalist orthodoxy will be best represented by a Starmer cabinet.

And even the most Labour-loyal of trade union leaders have little confidence that Labour will deliver much to restore employment rights or trade union freedoms while none has any confidence that Labour’s economic policies will shift the burdens the capitalist crisis has imposed on workers to the rich.

If the politics of working-class Britain cannot be contained in the outmoded model of Westminster parliamentary politics, the question is raised: what is to be done?

The solution to this political problem is not likely to be found exclusively in Galloway’s vehicle, the Workers Party, or any other of the many micro-organisations, some fallen from Labour’s orbit or from longer-established socialist groupings.

An electoral challenge will come from the left and it would be desirable and more effective if co-operation and unity could be found — but the realisation of a working-class intervention into national political life depends more on the mass movement.

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