đź”’ Proof that ‘Culture War’ politics are spreading from the US to UK after George Galloway’s win: Martin Ivens

In the throes of a cultural war, civility becomes the first casualty. Martin Ivens dissects the impact of inflammatory language on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, using George Galloway’s recent by-election win as a focal point. As the Conservative Party and Labour vie for support, Ivens highlights the risks of adopting populist strategies, emphasising the need for moderation in a political landscape rife with divisive rhetoric and potential fallout.

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By Martin Ivens

If truth is the first casualty of war, then the first casualty of culture war is civility. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The sufferings of Israelis and Palestinians shown nightly on our television screens need no amplification. But some UK politicians seem irresistibly drawn to use inflammatory language about a far-away conflict that inflames communities at home.

The ruling Conservative Party and the Labour opposition should leave raucous populism to the professionals — demagogues like George Galloway, the veteran, left-wing anti-Zionist who won the by-election for the hitherto safe Labour seat of Rochdale on Thursday.

In Rochdale, Galloway whipped up Muslim voters’ anger (they represent 30% of the constituency) over Labour leader Keir Starmer’s queasy support for Israel. Galloway’s triumph was assured when Labour fielded no official candidate in the contest after dropping its chosen representative for expressing anti-Semitic sentiments.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak  on Friday denounced Galloway for denying “the horror of what happened on October 7” and used  his victory as a launch pad for an attack on left- and right-wing extremism and their joint threat to public order. Galloway will love the attention.

A fiery orator whose trademark is his fedora, Galloway has an impressive record of winning one-off victories against Labour, the party he served as an MP for many years before he was expelled in 2003 for “inciting foreign forces to rise up against British troops” in Iraq. 

In his colorful career, Galloway has taken the side of Middle East tyrants against the West, saluted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s â€ścourage” and been a frequent guest on Iranian-owned Press TV and Russia Today. He also declared that Russia and Vladimir Putin should be at “the bottom of the list” of suspects after the defector Sergei Skripal was poisoned with the chemical weapon Novichok in Salisbury. 

Galloway is also one of the few British politicians with instant name recognition. Even those without any interest in politics remember him for his bizarre but well-paid appearance on a reality television show when he imitated a cat lapping milk from an actress’s hands.

In a by-election contest where little is at stake, voters are tempted to turn to the cheeky populist who cocks a snook at the political establishment. Yet Galloway invariably loses his seat at general elections and no other candidate of his many political outfits, Independent Labour, Respect and now the Workers Party, has ever joined him at Westminster. Galloway is a maverick, not the leader of a mass movement, although he skillfully taps into communal discontents.

Pro-Palestinian protests have become a feature in Britain since Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre of Israeli citizens provoked retaliation. The capital’s streets are regularly brought to a standstill every weekend by marchers. This is Galloway’s opportunity and Starmer’s difficulty.

Millions of centrist voters remember that Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, failed to stamp out virulent anti-Semitism that masqueraded as anti-Zionism in the Labour Party. After Oct. 7, Starmer therefore had to show support for Israel’s right to defend itself. He performed that task clumsily, perhaps over-enthusiastically. Now the party’s large block of Muslim voters and tens of thousands of young middle class activists want Starmer to call for an unconditional cease-fire and back the Palestinian cause. 

Squaring that circle was already proving difficult when Starmer was forced to remove the whip from Labour’s (Muslim) candidate in the Rochdale by-election after he endorsed a venomous conspiracy theory that Israel had connived in Hamas’s attack on its own citizens. 

Rochdale’s result won’t make Starmer’s task any easier, but better to lose a few seats because of Muslim voter disaffection than jeopardize his standing with moderate voters. Five years ago, an accommodation with the anti-Zionist, anti-American far-left led to Labour’s worst general election result since 1935.

In recent years, both Labour and the Conservatives have been tempted to steal the clothes of populists to their left and right. The tactic may appeal to party activists, but the voters crave respectability in a party they elect to government.

On the right, UKIP and its successor Reform have a similar magnetic attraction for many Tories. Led by a formidable campaigner, Nigel Farage, UKIP spooked David Cameron’s Conservative government into holding the referendum on Europe in 2016. In the 2015 general election, UKIP came second in 100 seats.

Farage remains the tail that wants to wag the Tory dog. Today, Reform eats into the Tory vote share by castigating the government’s failure to control immigration. Mesmerized by Farage’s popular appeal — he is currently sitting out politics as a television pundit — some right-wing Tories would like to adopt his political style. This risks causing a split with moderate Conservative MPs. Which suits Farage fine: His ambition is to see a party of the radical right replace or absorb the Conservatives.  

Over the last fortnight, the Tories lost a good opportunity to let Labour stew in its own juice. Although opinion polls show that most voters want the fighting in Gaza to stop, the barracking and intimidation of MPs by pro-Palestinian demonstrators at home is repugnant to  democratic values. 

Yet would-be Tory populists demand the oxygen of publicity. On GB News, the upstart British television equivalent of Fox, the Conservative MP and former deputy chairman Lee Anderson falsely claimed that “Islamists have got control” of the London Mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, who has given the capital “to his mates.” Anderson’s  inflammatory remarks resulted in his loss of the Tory whip. Yet weeks before, Sunak had made a cringeworthy video with Anderson appearing to endorse the former miner’s bluff “no-nonsense” views.

The Conservative leadership is now running scared that Anderson, a former Labour councilor, could defect to Reform and take many blue-collar voters with him. Condemnations of his words have been qualified by sotto voce invitations to return, provided he apologizes.

Meanwhile, former Conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss has appeared on the same platform as former Trump ideologist Steve Bannon at an American conservative conference, CPAC, complaining that the British “deep state” destroyed her government. The Conservatives are in danger of looking like a freak show. 

Sunak, too, is tempted to play the game of culture war-lite. On Friday he took to the lectern outside No. 10 to denounce political Islamism and  extremists of any ideological hue. The prime minister’s words were measured and he was right to point to the threat of political violence — two MPs have been murdered in recent years.

But although Sunak rose above direct attacks on Labour this time, the danger is that members of his party will show no such restraint. Labour’s leadership denounces Tory “Islamophobia” and the Tories decry Labour’s tolerance of extremism in increasingly shrill tones. Unless both party leaders restrain their followers we can look forward to one of the nastiest general election campaigns of modern times. 

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