Galloway is the beginning of something, not its end. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty)

March 8, 2024   5 mins

“I apologise to voters in Rochdale,” Sir Keir Starmer said last week following George Galloway’s victory in the constituency. He was referring to the selection of Azhar Ali as Labour’s candidate, and promised to put forward “a first-class candidate, a unifier” at the general election. In so doing, he treated Galloway’s victory as though it were an unforced error of Labour central office, easily redressed and forgotten. But this attempt to smooth over the issue completely missed the point. Voters in Rochdale don’t want an apology for Ali, but for the assorted platter of Starmer’s failures that Galloway exploited in his campaign.

Front and centre, of course, was Starmer’s failure of principle and command over the war in Gaza. But it was notable that Galloway’s messaging made hay of many other unrelated issues, designed to attract disaffected white voters. Anti-woke rhetoric, Rochdale’s grooming gangs, local NHS inadequacy, and a sense of municipal dilapidation that an economically cautious Labour can’t be trusted to turn around: all also featured in his campaign. Far from a managerial mishap, this by-election points to a far graver threat to the Starmer project writ large. Just in time for this election year, the British Left that he swore to keep out and down is rearing its head once again.

Pollsters and analysts largely missed this development, obsessing instead over the electoral threat that Reform poses to the Conservatives. And this is considerable: we have a prime minister who waxes unlyrically over the “need to protect our democracy” even as, on his watch, trust in British political parties has slumped from a meagre 20% last year to a dismal 12% today. But this energy is not only clustering to the Right. A coalition of hundreds of thousands has assembled to march every week since the war in Gaza began. Galloway’s victory proves that, unlike a Reform Party whose political power still remains in the subjunctive mood, this is a movement that is capable of traversing from the streets to Parliament, depriving Labour of votes and MPs on the way.

Ever the opportunist, Galloway has lost no time in calling on Jeremy Corbyn to stop dithering, and lead a new party of the Left, which he says he would support. But, beyond him and his uniquely divisive personality, this is a move that a significant tranche of former Labour supporters, climate campaigners and peace activists would support, increasingly disenfranchised and frustrated by the Tweedledee and Tweedledum double act of Sunak and Starmer. Because the public fury over the failure of either politician to call out Netanyahu, and at the shenanigans in Parliament to prevent a vote on an “immediate & permanent ceasefire” that might acknowledge the collective punishment of Palestinians, is not confined to British Muslims. At a time when authenticity and answers to profound questions are lacking, it seems that the public increasingly regard Parliament and its occupants (taking their cue from Dennis Skinner) as a “Palace of Varieties”. An ineffectual conjuring house, utterly detached from real matters of politics.

The terminal unpopularity of the Tories continues to provide for a large Labour lead on paper. The traditional parties of protest provide no comparable outlet: the Liberal Democrats have all but disappeared into one of those cracked pavements they tend to obsess about. But Labour’s standing as “the party of change” will only maintain its resonance while voters are on board with what this “change” represents. And a slip in the polls as the election approaches will open the door to new mathematical possibilities in Parliament, especially if Galloway’s win emboldens MPs on the rump Left of the party to jump ship. The best estimates suggest that at least eight Labour seats are threatened by the Gaza effect, while the anti-war SNP seem likely to hold on to more seats than hitherto projected.

And this could sabotage the entire strategic grounding of Starmer’s leadership. In their rush to congratulate him on winning the party leadership (with what proved to be a borderline fraudulent manifesto), and to salute the subsequent defenestration of Jeremy Corbyn (whom he had once claimed as “a friend”), many in Labour seemed to think they could happily do without their Left-wing. But the few successful coalitions of the Left in recent years have not permitted such arrogance. It is a mistake Joe Biden has strained to avoid, continuing to work closely with Bernie Sanders and members of the radical “Squad”, all while rolling out the kind of transformative, state-driven economic programme that Starmer has unceremoniously dropped. But for Biden, the fault lines over Gaza are also showing. He is dropping in the polls, and many of the younger activists who worked so hard for him last time are threatening to sit on their hands, even in the face of a third Trump candidacy.

Keir Starmer claims Harold Wilson as his political inspiration. But he shares none of his hero’s intelligence, shrewd political skill, or easy humour. If he did, he might be familiar with the irascible former Labour MP and Commons bookie, Ian Mikardo, who supplied the rule Wilson cleaved to in his own party management: the Labour Party needs a “Left and a Right wing to fly”. Starmer has decisively severed the Left from the body of the Labour leadership, ruling instead through a coterie of sectarian hatchet men. MPs and candidates from the Left have found themselves censured and suspended, often on the most spurious grounds, with even party veterans left wondering if they will be able to stand in the general election. The role of local parties in selecting their own candidates has been quashed beneath the boot of central office, and party panjandrums are said to have a list of approved, on-message candidates they intend to drop into safe seats that become vacant between now and the election.

“MPs and candidates from the Left have found themselves censured and suspended”

All of this is unlikely to cost Starmer his victory, although it suggests a smaller majority than that predicted by the pollsters. But a network of internal opposition is forming, not least in Starmer’s own backyard. In common with a number of prominent Labour MPs who have demurred from calling for a permanent ceasefire (including West Streeting in Ilford and Rushanara Ali in Bethnal Green), Starmer’s home ground of Holborn and St Pancras will likely be facing an insurgent campaign from the Left. Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC MP under Nelson Mandela, has lived in Starmer’s constituency for 20 years and is weighing up standing there in the general election. This weekend he endorsed the launch of a new political alliance, billed as the first organised movement of the Left outside Labour, calling itself “Collective”. The name is more than symbolic: a pragmatic grouping, Collective will likely work with other parties, including Galloway’s own, and could field several parliamentary candidates, targeting constituencies in inner cities with large student populations.

The idea that the bruised Labour Left could be bundled up and tossed over the ropes of the political ring was an enormous miscalculation on Starmer’s part. After all, we’re only seven years on from the peak of the Corbyn movement, which operated with a grassroots dynamism well beyond the playbook of the powerbrokers who’ve managed the party since the New Labour turn. The same forces will drive this new Left, with enthusiasm and young volunteers making up for the lack of donor money drawn to the big parties. And while some may dismiss the electoral damage a Left breakaway could do, as with Ukip and the Brexit Party’s influence over successive elections, independent Left candidates could one day hold the balance of a Labour majority.

For now though, the next election seems probably produce a Starmer-led Labour government, benefiting from the Tory collapse and a likely low turn-out. But beneath this victory, a new movement might begin to find its voice. For decades, first-past-the-post elections have been fought and won among swing voters in a small band of marginal constituencies. Independent candidates may perform better than expected, exerting a disproportionate impact at a time when constituency boundaries have been redrawn and pressure continues to mount for proportional representation. It is the election after this one which may deliver the body blow to the old political giants, who in any case already resemble, as Christopher Hitchens once said of America’s own dead two-party system, “two cosily fused buttocks of the same giant derrière”.

Mark Seddon is a former UN correspondent and New York bureau chief for Al-Jazeera English TV. He also worked in the speechwriting unit for the former secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon