Alf Young: George Galloway’s rebirth reveals a great deal

MORE than three decades ago, during my brief sojourn in the world of full-time, back-room politics, I was deeply involved in three by-election campaigns in quick succession. The first in April 1978, Glasgow Garscadden, won for Labour by Donald Dewar, was widely seen as halting the SNP’s strong electoral surge earlier that decade.

Then that May, George Robertson held off Margo MacDonald’s challenge in totemic Hamilton. Finally, by October, John Home Robertson had held on to Berwick and East Lothian with an increased majority, after the incumbent, John P Macintosh, died suddenly, tragically young. He was 48.

It was there, in that sprawling tapestry of towns and villages to the east and south of Edinburgh, that I first got to know George Galloway. Still in his early twenties, he was Labour’s organiser in Dundee. For the duration of the by-election, he ran the party’s campaign base in an empty shop in North Berwick.

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I can still see him sitting there, in his blue jeans and trademark leather jacket, putting down a book by Gramsci and fixing you with a mischievous smile and those piercing, pale blue eyes.

The Labour-supporting, comfortably-off women of North Berwick adored him. How they fussed over George, brought him hot meals and plied him with more home baking than he could ever eat.

The boy from Lochee oozed charm and charisma even then, matched with an acute political brain and a fluent tongue. But, as his track record back in Dundee was already showing, he could be a deeply divisive force, too.

When George Galloway failed to win a list seat in Glasgow in last year’s Scottish parliament elections, in a city where he had previously held a Westminster seat by more than 16,000 votes, it looked as if his high-wire political journey was finally over. Then came another by-election: Bradford West. George is back. Again. Sweeping all before him. Hailing the Bradford Spring.

Labour is left humiliated. The Tories and Liberal Democrats rendered almost irrelevant also-rans. But does this Galloway tidal wave, while stunning in its scale, tell us anything meaningful about the current state of mainstream politics across Britain? Or will we come to see it, with hindsight, as a one-off tropical storm in a northern industrial town, fallen on very hard times? A wonder to behold? But a wonder soon forgotten?

The coalition parties at Westminster have endured a turbulent few weeks. That image of Raisa, the ex-Met police horse, being ridden around Oxfordshire by the Prime Minister, courtesy the twice-arrested Rebekah Brooks. A fresh donor scandal claiming the scalp of another Tory grandee. A budget, poorly received on many fronts. That pasty question – which millionaires on the government front-bench have ever allowed a Gregg’s steak lattice to pass their lips? Ministers inexplicably triggering mass panic buying of petrol as tanker drivers threatened strike action.

Labour had finally found itself with some leverage and a ten-point lead in some polls. Then, from nowhere, George Galloway trounced its candidate in Bradford West by more than 10,000 votes. Ed Miliband says lessons will have to be learned. Some of his colleagues are again wondering whether, after the local and mayoral elections in May and any further reverses, that lesson may turn out to be: “We can’t possibly win with him as leader.”

In the wake of Galloway’s victory, some in the online commentariat have been drawing entirely predictable conclusions. This is a lifeline for Cameron, said one Telegraph blogger. Galloway dooms Miliband, suggested another. The void at Labour’s core is exposed, posted a third. We know where they are all coming from. And they could all be matched, if space allowed, with equivalent self-interested judgments from the other side of the same coin.

These tribal instincts don’t take us very far in understanding what is really going on. Theirs is a shared consensus that if one of the mainstream parties is down, the others must be up. And vice-versa. Some partisan observers may allow for a growing rift between mainstream politics as a whole and the people. But they can’t conceive of that rift turning into the kind of chasm that would destroy the mainstream political consensus altogether.

Bradford West could never happen right across the political landscape of these islands, could it? Eloquent mavericks like George Galloway can’t be replicated again and again and again on some political conveyor belt, can they? I strongly suspect such mainstream political complacencies ignore the sheer depths of the crisis we have all been in for the past four years or the lessons people are starting to draw from it.

Those who comment from within the mainstream political bubble frequently exhibit scant understanding of the consequences of the great crash, and a protracted diet of austerity since, for a growing litany of alienated groups. In our already grotesquely unequal society, the young, ethnic minorities, the unemployed and the poor, as well as the fabled squeezed middle, all have increasingly cause to doubt the moral case for the market-driven remedies still peddled by all the mainstream parties.

More and more people are also questioning what the late Tony Judt called “the delusion of endless growth”. Thirty years of making the pursuit of material self-interest the principal virtue of existence has left us all with a monumental debt hangover. But even as we still struggle to find our way out of the resultant debris, all our mainstream parties, while they may quibble over the marginal arithmetic of austerity, are urging upon us, the other side of all this pain, another round of the same material goose chase.

I include the SNP in this indictment. Even without independence, their principal purpose in government is more growth. Sustainable, of course. But growth, all the same. Their core case for independence is that, with control of North Sea oil and gas reserves, we Scots would be richer – a lot richer – than our neighbours.

Certainly richer than the 18,341 people who voted for George Galloway in Bradford West. But people like them can be found in every corner of these islands. People who despair about the state we are now in. People hungry for something to believe in beyond the triumph of materialism and the tawdry accumulation of more stuff. People mourning the loss of any sense of community and the increasingly values-free politics on offer from the main parties.

There is great irony that someone whose political journey included time out in the Celebrity Big Brother house should still be able to unlock the votes of so many disaffected youth and other estranged groups in Bradford West.

This result may come to be seen as a one-off wonder, but it is also contains a stark warning to mainstream politicians everywhere: Beware the growing ranks of the disaffected across Britain. If they ever find their voice you will all hear the roar.