Is there really any space in our political climate, and in our discourse, for those who vote in ways that don’t fuel the engine of the two-party system? Voting for the Liberal Democrats doesn’t count; for a vote for them seems to bolster the position of the Conservatives, partly because that’s just one vote less for the Labour Party.
The recent victory of the Respect MP George Galloway in Bradford appears to be a rather damning indictment, not just of the Labour candidate who stood, but to the Government of today. Most commentators seem to at least acknowledge that fact (to varying degrees), but I’m not convinced that this will be taken seriously enough.
Now, before I proceed, I must admit that I am a supporter of the Respect Party, so I cannot be entirely objective about the outcome of the election this past week. Though I’m perhaps too cynical about British politics today, I cannot hide my joy at Mr Galloway’s victory. If you’d like to imagine me smiling whilst writing this, it might help my cause!
That said, I am hopeful that the massive media interest surrounding Respect’s victory in Bradford (and hopefully, success in the upcoming local elections), will bring back to the public discourse the various issues that seem to have, at least temporarily, given them a second wind.
But competing for this space in the discourse will be tough, as already various explanations have been offered for Respect’s victory. The two which are the most interesting to me, and which seem to overlap, are, firstly, that Mr Galloway won by courting the Muslim vote, and secondly, that Respect won because they are a single-issue party campaigned on that platform.
While these factors may have been important in securing Mr Galloway’s resounding victory (and had it not been such a landslide we might otherwise have played down their importance), the logic behind these suggestions is rather worrying.
Firstly, had Respect courted the Muslim vote – leaving aside the troubling assumption that all Muslims vote the same way – does it delegitimise Mr Galloway’s Parliamentary mandate? Mehdi Hasan, for whom I have much respect, does make the important point here that Muslim voices are uncomfortably silent on issues relating to domestic policy, although I think he underestimates the bustling civil society in places such as Bradford, Birmingham and elsewhere.
Even if it was indeed true that the bulk of Mr Galloway’s votes came from one particular demographic, is it not insulting to essentially dismiss this surprise victory by claiming that it was ‘those Muslims’ who voted him in? I celebrate the large Muslim turnout at this election, unlike those who prefer to take Galloway’s victory as evidence of “the ugly alliance between the far left and Islamists.” As far as I remember, one Muslim’s vote was, at least in the past, equal to the vote of any other member of the British public. Some people seem to have forgotten this fact.
Moreover, if it was true that Galloway could have only won because of the so-called ‘Muslim vote’, should we not then ask why this is? One of the obvious conclusions might be the disillusionment ‘those Muslims’ feel with the major parties in Britain today, and their disastrous foreign, economic, and social policies – undoubtedly important factors in post-industrial cities like Bradford. Some may recognise this, but not realise its importance because of obscene suggestions about Muslims and how they vote.
But if we were to look at these people as more than Muslims, and view them as people who have similar concerns to anyone else in our communities, then perhaps it would be easier for people to process some of the reasons behind this result. They may actually recognize that as enfranchised members of the public, their legitimate grievances should not be dismissed, regardless of their religion or who they voted for to represent them. The discourse seems to strip away this community’s dignity – and their right to vote against the tide is undermined by such lazy stereotyping.
I don’t often play the race card, but I do think we need to whether we are enmeshed in institutional racism, both in the reporting of elections and discussions about the Muslim community (or indeed any other ‘minority’ group). Even I am constrained by the discourse (and see the contradiction), by recognising Muslims as a minority, implying that they have special needs or wants. What I mean to say is that in the democratic arena, we should see them as more than simply Muslims, and afford them the same democratic dignity as we would anyone else.
Secondly, if indeed Mr Galloway won because of the ‘single-issue’ that Respect promote i.e. their anti-war stance – people will make the essentialist argument that because our two ongoing conflicts pertain to the ‘Islamic world’, Muslims will certainly vote against them. Does this give our Government or the Opposition the mandate to whitewash that issue and its implications? If indeed the anti-war sentiment is important to the people of Bradford West, and by extension other cities, then it ought to be addressed. It is not fair to those voters to undermine their democratic right to vote for a policy, not a party, by implying that their collective interests compromised by mandating a particular policy.
The way this argument is framed allows the powers that be to conveniently dismiss the anti-war sentiment which contributed to the election of the Respect candidate. The prevailing discourse is that the election of parties matters more than candidates. Here, our democracy fails critically, because it gives rise to a lazy, non–reflexive political discourse which simply perpetuates policies that the citizenry might oppose, but can do nothing about because they are often duped into voting for party over policy. But maybe, just maybe, not anymore.