Last week, Labour, under Iain McNicol’s effective management, mounted an impressive campaign to defeat the perceived threat in Croydon and Rotherham by-elections from Respect. Though Labour’s continuing failure to develop an anti-austerity strategy and thoroughly reconnect with working class voters still leaves it exposed to some future threat from the left, it won’t come from Respect. This was their last shout. They will pose no credible threat again in any by-election in this parliament and they know it.
On the other hand, the disastrous and shambolic handling of Labour’s selection process in Rotherham, and Ed Miliband’s subsequent handling of the UKIP fostering row, have left UKIP looking like a credible and legitimate mainstream party that can provide a suitable home for working class voters. Behind the very plausible face of Nigel Farage, however, lurk a bunch of dodgy characters with dangerous views whose brand of nasty right-wing populism now poses an even more serious threat.
We shall return to an analysis of UKIP later this week, but today Respect effectively publicly acknowledged their demise:
The general context of this Parliament remains one in which Labour is viewed as the instinctive vote of opposition with the Condem government despised. Progressive and disaffected voters will tend to rally to Labour as the party which can get the Condems out. The rapid erosion of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat voting base has created a larger pool of right leaning voters for right wing parties and above all UKIP to pick up. Left and progressive parties, on the other hand, always face a squeeze in these circumstances.
They show no remorse for the way in which George Galloway and Respect themselves contributed to the hype (described on Left Futures last week by Phil Burton-Cartledge) which gave UKIP the enormous fillip in Rotherham, as indicated by tweets such as this:
Labour has brought shame to Rotherham: grooming cover-up MacShame expenses scandal and now the foster parent shocker. Kick them out!
— George Galloway (@georgegalloway) November 24, 2012
This was, unsuprisingly retweeted by a number of the racists and homophobes who were out campaigning for UKIP.
And though Respect take take some sectarian comfort in the admittedly far worse performance of those they describe as their “opponents on the left” — arguing that the “ludicrous nature of the Communist Party’s electoral profile was exposed again in Croydon,” and knocking the “absurdly sectarian” TUSC’s vote in Rotherham — they still delude themselves about their own longer term prospects, believing they are “increasingly well placed to be the credible progressive left alternative when Labour comes back into government.”
They are right, unfortunately, that Labour appears to be following the course recently charted by François Hollande – securing election on the back of an ambiguous stance that declares opposition to austerity without proposing any real alternative. And we agree that this would most likely result in a rapid fall from popularity, and inevitable confrontation with trade union and community opposition to the massive cuts that George Osborne has built into post-2015 budgets. However, George Galloway is in no position to rally the forces of the Left in the way that Mélenchon has done in France.
It could have been different. Respect has shown, most notably in Tower Hamlets and even more so in Bradford, that it is possible for a social democratic party to the left of Labour to successfully challenge Labour where Labour has detached itself from core voters. Although Respect’s successes were in areas with large Asian communities, the experience in Bradford lead Labour to recognise the possibility of a challenge where the alienation from Labour had different roots, and rise to it.
If there was to be a successful challenge from the Left outside Labour to a future Labour government over austerity, it would have to come from an alliance with a similarly social democratic programme, capable of uniting a very broad section of the community and Labour movement. Although George Galloway will undoubtedly continue to provide a loud and articulate voice of dissent, he has become an obstacle to any form of Left unity, not a force for achieving it.