March 3, 2024 - 8:00am

That someone as politically and morally discredited as George Galloway has been elected as member of parliament for Rochdale — and by a landslide too — is troubling enough for the UK. Worse still, his brand of ethnic identitarianism may well be a template that other leaders to exploit in the years ahead.

Despite making a few milquetoast local pledges — bringing back a maternity hospital and a Primark to “make Rochdale great again” — Galloway’s single-issue campaign was clearly targeted towards Rochdale’s Muslim population that comprise 30% of its population. 

Outside mosques, he campaigned for votes by appealing to the consciences of worshippers. Could they face God on “judgement day” and say they opposed Keir Starmer and the Labour party’s position on the Gaza crisis when they had the chance? He won a by-election in Bradford West in 2012 with a rather similar strategy, where he beat Labour by portraying himself as a champion of oppressed Kashmiri Muslims. 

One can see this in the leaflets Galloway’s campaign team ran. One set of leaflets, seemingly targeted at white English households, affirmed his patriotism, his support for Brexit, his belief in the reality of sexual difference contra the “mainstream parties”, declaring that “there will be no grooming gangs under my watch” and support for small business. The other set was explicitly targeted towards “voters of the Muslim faith in Rochdale”, where he bragged about how he has “fought for Muslims at home and abroad all my life”.

The idea of Galloway as a champion of oppressed Muslims is rather fanciful (he openly supports the Syrian Baathist regime, which has slaughtered thousands of Palestinians). But on a broader level, his success offers a window into an unhappy future for politics in Britain. For most politicians, it has become rote to affirm modern Britain as a multicultural success story. But in reality, in a place like Rochdale, this multiculturalism isn’t a cosmopolitan paradise, but really what Amartya Sen called “plural monoculturalism”. Here different groups live apart with little contact with each other or any sense of shared social space. 

This magnifies ethnic divisions and degenerates politics into nothing more than championing tribal grievances at the cost of enacting a broader social vision for the benefit of all. And while it is doubtful that there will be explicitly Islamic parties like in Germany, or a BNP-style party based on white majoritarian resentment seizing power any time soon, it is the logical endpoint of this ethnic identitarianism. 

A centre-Left party such as Labour is particularly vulnerable to these trends because in the absence of having an alternative vision for society that addresses the problems people care about, they triangulate, take their voting base for granted and would rather not confront any “difficult” issues. In not wanting to alienate anyone, they end up pleasing no one, and thus discredit themselves.

That a sectarian grifter like Galloway can be elected is not a sign of the good health of British politics. It may be a sign of things to come.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.