Rochdale and Rishi Sunak’s hunt for ‘extremists’

George Galloway, an elderly white man with a short white beard, wearing a black rimmed hat, a black blazer and trousers with a blue and white striped shirt underneath, admires a car (a blue Audi) with a Palestinian flag printed on its bonnet.
Galloway: “the best cars are to be found here in Rochdale”. (Source: George Galloway, X.)

Last week a by-election in Rochdale saw the former Labour MP and more recently former leader of the Respect coalition, George Galloway, elected as an MP for a third time in a third constituency on the back of Muslim votes, this time about the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Until the early 2000s he was a Labour MP for a Glasgow constituency; in 2005, having been expelled from Labour, he was elected for Respect to represent Bethnal Green and Bow in east London on the back of anger about the Iraq war, and not long later took time out of his job to appear in the reality TV show, Celebrity Big Brother. More recently he was elected in a by-election in Bradford, then angered a lot of his electors by claiming in a podcast that the woman allegedly raped by Julian Assange couldn’t really have been raped because they were “in the sex game” and also by using the disablist derogatory term “window licker” in a tweet. This time, Labour played into his hands by withdrawing support for its candidate, the long-standing councillor Azhar Ali, who suggested that Israel may have allowed the 7th October Hamas attacks so as to manufacture a pretext for its genocide. Galloway was elected on just under 40% of the vote; the next biggest share of votes went to an independent, David Tully. Galloway received more than the Tories, Lib Dems, Reform UK (the successor to the Brexit Party) and the disowned Labour candidate combined.

First, it is clear to me that this disaster was of the Labour party’s making; by disowning its candidate for saying what a lot of people actually suspect, especially Muslims in a 25% Muslim area, he has made it clear that he cared more about not offending powerful and vocal Zionist lobbies and their friends in the mainstream media than in actually winning this election. It was not necessary to withdraw support for Labour’s candidate; they could have disagreed with it and said so — called it ridiculous, whatever — which they would have done if an opinion of this nature had been expressed about any other issue. Labour previously disowned a candidate in the 2019 general election, in Falkirk, for similar reasons; it has since suspended a white former MP who was planning to recontest his seat in the forthcoming election. Labour has set a trap for itself, as it is quite likely that at least one candidate will express off-message views about Israel or Gaza (or wherever else they are bombing by then) which will lead to Starmer and his team coming under pressure to distance themselves from not only the views but also the candidate.

While his fans continue to applaud his ‘toughness’ in the face of ‘antisemitism’ presumed to be a legacy of Corbyn’s leadership (though neither Azhar Ali nor Graham Jones are Corbynites; it is rumoured that it was a Corbynite who actually blew the whistle on them), to many (and perhaps the media will start to notice it before long) it reflects spinelessness, a long-observed disease of the Labour centre-right. They are only capable of showing toughness or decisiveness against powerless or unpopular people; when confronted with displays of power, or anger from powerful people or interests, they buckle very easily. Blair’s decision to involve us in the disastrous Iraq invasion was the clearest example of the latter, but his government’s response to the media-invented “foreign criminals” scandal in his last term demonstrates this contrast very clearly: in response to a Daily Mail ‘exposé’ of foreign nationals not automatically deported after completing a sentence (something that for good reasons just hadn’t ever been policy), he simply rounded up a large number of people who had served time, often for minor offences and often a long time ago, some of whom had lived here a long time and had most of their family here. Something we have seen from them since Labour lost the 2010 election is a flat refusal to challenge popular (or media-popular) orthodoxies. In the 2010-15 term it was the importance of settling the deficit and the ‘necessity’ of dramatic public service cuts; right now it’s the issue of antisemitism, however Zionists define it.

I’m not fond of George Galloway; he is a publicity junkie but also an unsavoury character who has lined up with Assad of Syria, Nigel Farage and Saddam Hussain, called the White Helmets terrorists and denied the genocide of the Uyghurs by the Chinese communists. It says a lot about our failures as a Muslim community that we have not produced someone who can represent our communities in parliament or respond to and exploit situations like Gaza the way he has. However, politicians and the media have presented his election as some sort of attack on “British democracy”. In fact, it’s British democracy at work. In a preferential or proportional voting system, he might not have stood a chance as second preferences would have worked against him, but our politicians have opposed any reform of “first past the post” for decades. There are many MPs who won their seats on the basis of less than 40%, let alone 50, or on the basis of a small turnout such as in this case. This was a free and fair election and an unpleasant individual won it because of the miscalculations of others, Starmer in particular. It was not a coup. Nobody was assassinated. There were no riots or other violence. It was our electoral system working the way it always has.

Over the past couple of weeks, Tories have been ratcheting up Islamophobic rhetoric, accusing anti-genocide protesters of dominating the streets and intimidating MPs (based on no evidence that I can discern); Lee Anderson was suspended for claiming that the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was in the pocket of Islamists, resulting in an outcry from other Tory MPs and party members despite it being plainly untrue. Suella Braverman wrote in the Telegraph that “the truth is that the Islamists, the extremists and the anti-Semites are in charge now” having “bullied our country into submission”, among a number of right-wing canards: that the streets and universities weren’t safe for Jews, that people are afraid of being called racists or Islamophobes, that blasphemy laws have been introduced by the backdoor resulting in a teacher being hounded out of his job (in fact, the cartoons in question are racist, as anyone who has seen them will understand), as well as the Israeli atrocity propaganda about mass rape on 7th October and the claims that Israel’s genocide in Gaza is a “noble mission to recover those poor hostages”. The Telegraph’s politics account tweeted out a link to a write-up of the article without so much as a scare quote around Braverman’s accusations; not that long ago, a respectable newspaper would have dismissed anyone making such claims as a dangerous lunatic; much milder claims about Jews or Zionists have resulted in a swift expulsion from the Labour party (even when Corbyn was leader) and would do in the Tory party as well.

And then, last night the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, gave a speech at the 10 Downing Street lectern (normally reserved for major announcements, of which there were none — such as outlines for new laws, for example) repeating a lot of the same tropes as in Braverman’s article, alleging that there had been a “shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality” and that “what started as protests on our streets has descended into intimidation, threats and planned acts of violence”, as if we all knew which acts. He gave the usual blandishments about British tolerance and how you can be Hindu or Muslim or Jewish and still British, told us that “the faith of Islam” has nothing to do with the “extremist political ideology of Islamism”, likened ‘antisemitism’ (the term favoured by the Jewish community) with “anti-Muslim hatred” (rejecting the term favoured by the Muslim community) and called Britain “the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy” (note that he didn’t use the term ‘multicultural’). He alleged that “our streets have been hijacked by small groups that are hostile to our values and have no respect for our democratic traditions” and accused Islamists and the far right of feeding off each other and of spreading the ‘poison’ of extremism. He used phrases like ‘they’ and “these groups” a lot, accusing unnamed factions of teaching that Britain is on the wrong side of history, is a racist country or is responsible for all the evil in the world, or that the system is rigged against them; these sound like the talking points of the Left, not the far right and certainly not Islamists. Towards the end, he made a threatening overture to “those who choose to continue to protest”, informing us, “you have a chance in the coming weeks to show that you can protest decently, peacefully and with empathy for your fellow citizens”.

Having been on one of these marches, and been in touch with people who have been on others, and having followed the events on social and mainstream media, I know that the marches are multi-racial, not organised or controlled by Islamists, and have been overwhelmingly peaceful with very few violent incidents; the only criminality linked to them consists of slogans and posters that were brought to the police’s attention through snitches on social media, such as a poster depicting Braverman and Sunak as coconuts (i.e. brown on the outside, white on the inside) and a picture of a glider (the form of transport used by some of the 7th October attackers) on someone’s rucksack. (These cases were prosecuted astonishingly quickly, as with other speech offences that injure the sensitivities of the rich and powerful, while rape victims wait years to see their attackers tried as a result of Tory cuts to the court system and ongoing disputes with the legal profession.) The people complaining are principally Zionists; there have been Jewish people on all of the marches. Sunak is just conjuring an extremist threat out of nowhere, and by attacking the election result in Rochdale, he is showing his contempt not only for Galloway but for the thousands of local people who voted for him because the main parties had let them down.

There is a general election not too far off; most likely it will be this year, though May looks increasingly unlikely. The Tories are clearly desperate, much more so than any other party I can remember that knows it is likely to lose; they know that some of them face criminal investigation. It is interesting that some senior Tories have suddenly developed a conscience about the stripping of British citizenship from Shamima Begum, who has been left stateless in a prison camp in eastern Syria; perhaps this is because they know that the same fate awaits a number of their colleagues once the Tories are stripped of their power. This is why they are hunting round for scapegoats. Myself, I have hope (for once) that the public will not fall for their tricks: we know about their wretched handling of the Covid crisis and their contempt for the rules we all had to live by, we know Brexit has been a disaster, we know about the pollution of waterways and that some of our beaches have become health hazards as a result, while water companies threaten us with increased bills, and we all know about the dramatic rise in the cost of living while local services have been cut to the bone, while taxes rise to pay off councils’ debts. We can all see who has torn the country apart for the past fourteen years and certainly the last five, and it’s not people protesting against a genocide in Palestine but the people thrashing around like a dying animal in the search for anyone but themselves to blame.

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