Week-in-Review: George Galloway, Liz Truss and the Trumpification of British politics

A perfect Gallowayite storm: demographics, together with international and domestic political circumstance, coalesced in Rochdale to create a pathway for a remarkable victory. Having scavenged the by-election battlefield vacated by “lucky generalKeir Starmer, George Galloway now marches to Westminster to represent his third party and fourth constituency. To refer to the former Respect MP as a political enigma would be a grave understatement. 

Galloway is, of course, one of British politics’ most formidable campaigners. He doesn’t win every electoral bout he enters — far from it; but his record of unlikely routings, from Bethnal Green and Bow, to Bradford West and now in Rochdale, speaks for itself. 

In this sense, Galloway’s latest victory may actually be his least impressive. In Rochdale, Labour’s ruthless by-election machine rolled out of town, leaving a vacuum that only an individual with the campaigning zeal of Galloway could ably fill. There was also no clear “stop Galloway” candidate in the contest: independent challenger David Tully, unknown beyond Rochdale, ended up finishing second; Reform UK’s Simon Danczuk came sixth despite much media attention.

In this way, although the scale of Galloway’s victory was a striking — (12,335 Rochdalians backed the ex-Respect MP; that’s more than the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Green, Reform and Labour candidates combined) — the outcome was pretty foreseeable. 

Take the prognostication of former prime minister Liz Truss, for instance, whose political instincts you might reasonably doubt. Having assessed the contours of the contest in Rochdale as early as 23rd February, Truss called the race for Galloway.

The return of George Galloway: what’s at stake in the Rochdale by-election?

The Bannon connection – Liz Truss

Last month, the former PM told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in the US that a “radical Islamic party” could win in Rochdale. Truss’ apparent reference to the Workers Party of Britain — which she has not repeated since the anti-globalist confab — is one Galloway would no doubt dispute.

“Woah, woah, woah”, Truss’ CPAC co-star and former Trump aide Steve Bannon interjected. Upon hearing that a “special election” was taking place in Rochdale, a town he immediately associated with the activism of “hero” Tommy Robinson, Bannon baulked. The former chief White House strategist splurted: “And in that community, … you may have a radical jihadist party send somebody to commons [sic]?”.

That is correct”, Truss answered. 

This curious and ill-informed exchange followed former UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s own predication, told unto CPAC the previous day, that a radical Islamic party will be represented at Westminster “by the 2029 general election”. Bannon broached the subject with Truss, not expecting she would expedite Farage’s foretelling significantly. 

Nor would Bannon have considered that the soon-to-be victor in Rochdale, the leader of this so-called “radical Islamic party”, was well-known to him — or that the tactics Galloway deployed in the by-election, and his mode of politics more generally, are borrowed directly from his playbook of the insurgent populist.  

The Bannon connection – George Galloway

In 2019, Steve Bannon and George Galloway spoke on the same panel in the Kazakh city of Almaty as part of a televised debate at the 2019 Eurasian Media Forum. The debate came just hours before Theresa May announced her resignation as prime minister — a moment which Bannon and Galloway apparently marked with a “hug”.

The event (viewable here) was all very 2019. Ahead of time, its organisers had framed the panel as populist vs liberal/elitist, inviting champions of each “cause” to make their case. The ensuing discussion was designed to illustrate a totemic divide in world politics between old and new modes — the latter represented by 2016’s Brexit and Trump insurgencies. Attendees would then leave less enlightened than they arrived.

But the debate is instructive today because it was characterised by moments of genuine agreement between Galloway and Bannon. These professional populists supported each other point-by-point in their visceral invective against globalisation and support for the inviolability of national sovereignty. 

“I’m a working class man from the same ethnoreligious background as Steve Bannon”, Galloway posited at one point. “But our people of whatever colour, wherever they came from, however they pray are asserting themselves and the elite day is done”.

He added later: “I don’t know what they mean when they call someone like me a ‘populist’. Maybe they mean popular — you’ll see how popular when the results of the [2019 European parliament] elections in Britain on Sunday are announced when the party I’ve been campaigning for [Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party] wins a stunning victory”.

Needless to say, this side of Galloway complicates the more common depiction of him, which has dominated much of the post-Rochdale discourse, that he is a firebrand progressive. The Workers Party of Britain leader ran a predominantly pro-Palestinian campaign in Rochdale — his campaign literature and posters plastered all over town were printed in the colours of the Palestinian flag; and his first words upon hearing that he was being returned as Rochdale’s next MP were “Keir Starmer, this is for Gaza”. 

But to suggest Galloway merely lumbered a soapbox through the streets of Rochdale, declared his support for a ceasefire in Gaza, and strolled out of town with a majority of 5,697, would be to misread the dynamics at play — and to misunderstand the man weaponising them. 

In the by-election, as has been noted elsewhere, Galloway ran what amounts to a parallel campaign. Circulating on X/Twitter are two examples of Galloway’s Rochdale campaign material: one leaflet that begins “To the voters of Muslim faith in Rochdale” focuses entirely on Galloway’s stance on the situation in Gaza. It states in one section: “The Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer have betrayed Muslims, choosing instead to support Israel’s genocide…”. 

But a second piece of campaign material reads entirely differently, opening: “I believe in Britain. That’s why I fought for Brexit, and why I fought against Scottish Independence. I believe in family”. 

It adds: “Unlike the mainstream parties I have no difficulty in defining what a woman is. … I believe in law and order. … There will be no grooming gangs on my watch. … I fight for small business, the hardest working people in the country. … MAKE ROCHDALE GREAT AGAIN”. 

This second half of Galloway’s Rochdale strategy, illustrated in this campaign letter, speaks to Galloway’s broader pitch to disaffected voters. Deploying such tactics, Galloway’s appeal in Rochdale went over and beyond that of the minority Muslim community; in this way, just as Galloway won the white suburban wards of Bradford West in 2012, one assumes he polled respectably across Rochdale too.

So, back to Kazakstan: why did Bannon seem so taken by Galloway? In the end, it was his political pugilism, his abrasiveness, his resilience and, above all, his appeal to pro-Brexit, white-British working-class voters who are fed up with the socially and economically liberal political establishment. It is also why his margin of victory in Rochdale was so significant.

The Trumpist turn

Appearing alongside Bannon last week, Liz Truss was promoting her forthcoming book Ten Years to Save the West which is marketed unapologetically to a US audience. Her presence at CPAC, therefore, was an attempt to woo Trumpist Republicans and bump up her pre-order numbers. 

But the experience will have taught Truss much, too. Tellingly, after her remarks were mocked by Keir Starmer at prime minister’s questions, the former PM doubled down. Hitting back on X/Twitter, she said: “Instead of providing ideas, [the Labour leader] wants to make the UK a hostile environment for conservatives”. 

Galloway, who is no stranger to the political wilderness, will surely sympathise with Truss’ Trumpist turn. However, there are still differences to draw out here; if Galloway has mastered the ways of ascendent Trumpism, Liz Truss is currently propounding the other half of the Trump playbook: how to cope with defeat and dispossession. (The “deep state”, which Truss now blames for her faulty premiership, happens to be an old foe of a wilderness-traversing Galloway).

In sum, through individuals like Truss and Galloway, Trumpism is slowly seeping into Britain. But they are not its only vessels. In response to his party’s poor showing at the Rochdale by-election, Reform leader Richard Tice argued that the contest was not “free or fair” due to the behaviour of the candidates. He told his employers at GB News: “In this ugliest of contests, we are also concerned by the sudden increase in the size of the postal vote, which has jumped from 14,000 to some 23,000 in this constituency since the last general election”.

Galloway’s response to Tice was itself revealing — albeit not for the reasons the new MP thought. “On my telephone a text from [Tice]”, Galloway revealed, “inviting me to be the Reform UK candidate in a by-election not that long ago. … If he keeps telling lies about me, I’ll have to tell the truth about him.”

(Galloway, for what it’s worth, made similar protestations as Tice after the 2021 Batley and Spen by-election; and he even suggested that Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the 2020 US presidential election was a “coup”).

Tice, of course, has denied ever reaching out to Galloway. But if the new MP for Rochdale is eventually vindicated in his war-of-words with the Reform leader, the revelation would be far from shocking. Galloway has thrown in with the Faragists before — first with the Brexit-backing Grassroots Out group in 2016 and then with the Brexit Party itself. In 2019, Galloway even suggested that he could run as the Brexit Party or Brexit Party-endorsed candidate in the 2019 Peterborough by-election. 

March of the Trumpists?

As has been well-rehearsed, pundits should be very careful about extrapolating from the Rochdale by-election; political enigma Galloway and the campaign’s sui generis circumstance mean such analysis may be of little value. But Galloway himself is revealing of a broader phenomenon: Trumpism is more and more relevant in Britain — and in parliament. 

In fact, after Liz Truss’ CPAC shenanigans, and with the Conservative Party openly embracing culture war politics, the new Workers Party MP may be merely the tip of the iceberg. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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