George Galloway’s style isn’t part of the solution – it’s part of the problem

22nd February, 2013 7:11 am

How we talk about politics is incredibly important. Those of us already politically aware and active have a democratic duty to open up that space and that conversation to those who are not. We have a duty to make it an inviting place; to make it a place as undaunting as possible. We must make that place be real life. But that means opening up our real selves to each other, not trying to emulate what a focus group has told us voters like, the last thing we need is any more Uncanny Valley politics.

Owen Jones is right to examine the failures of the Left and Labour to communicate well either with our own constituencies, with those who should be our allies and with the wider public. He is also right that our language became too technocratic, too focused on numbers and statistics that don’t resonate with the people we need to be talking with.

But Owen is wrong to laud George Galloway’s style for two reasons.

The first is that the messenger matters. Owen rightly acknowledges the baggage that Galloway brings with him. His disgraceful relations with dictators and his rape apologism are both brought up alongside his making a dick of himself on Big Brother.

Owen posits in his article that it is despite these seemingly fatal flaws that Galloway achieves cut through earning applause from the Question Time audience. I’m afraid I’m not so sure. I think there are plenty who will ignore and brush off such things as minor considerations against the wider fight that they see Galloway taking to the establishment. As we have seen with those who defend Julian Assange from facing justice and with the current implosion of the SWP there are plenty of those who would support, deny and cover up the appalling alleged crimes of their own people. It is not that these people are not politically engaged. It is that they are so deeply embedded in their own politics that they can’t see or care not for the wider picture.

But for those who are not actively seeking a populist leader. Who are not already politicised, but Galloway’s style of anti-politics rhetoric – the endless repetition of his “three cheeks of the same arse” line for example – may be amusing, but it is designed to win an anti-politics vote, not to bring people more into politics. It is anti-democratic in its lack of engagement with the reality of politics.

For those who don’t agree with Galloway and those who don’t yet know if they do, I would argue his style is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Owen is right to quote Lakoff and his work on framing. This is essential to the way the right have crafted their message and set the terms of the debate for decades. It is essential that the Left develop their own frames and find their own ways to connect their values to those of the voters.

But there are different ways of exchanging stories, and personally I find George Galloway’s pulpit bullying manner incredibly off-putting. His tendency to shout over opponents may be fun when he’s grandstanding against Hitchens or the US Congress, but he does it to everyone, including those with significantly less power than him. He is aggressive and domineering in his approach to politics. He is macho.

This may feel good and empowering when he’s speaking to your agenda (for instance in challenging the austerity consensus), but it is clear that with a loose cannon like Galloway, he won’t be focused just on what you agree with for long. Owen wasn’t to know how soon Galloway would indulge his worst angels when he wrote his article, but I think we can all be sure that they would be indulged – and sooner rather than later.

But a good politician’s job is not simply to speak up for those who already agree with them against those who don’t. That leaves a politics that is restricted to those who already know where they stand; those who have already examined the issues, or who have opted for the simplicity of a sense of black-and-white certainty. This is an exclusionary style of politics. It precludes anyone with a difference of opinion, however nuanced, and those still making up their minds. A good politician persuades others to their point of view. Not by shouting down their opponants and belittling all but their fellow-travellers. But by persuasive argument and an understanding of the needs of the audience.

In the end, politics is about coming to a compromise with the voters. That can only be achieved by talking and listening.

And you can’t have dialogue with an ideologue.

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  • NT86

    All the more reason to ignore him at all costs in my view. On the Internet, you’re told not to feed trolls. Same principle here. George Galloway thrives on attention no matter how much trouble and controversy he causes. His latest episode could have been prevented altogether. The people at Oxford should have known better than this. Why was he even up for consideration? There’s many other people who support the Palestinian cause, but wouldn’t behave so pathetically as this. Someone like Clare Short would have been a better option for the debate. She’s outspoken, has experience of working at a high level in government and was often considered to be semi detached from it. But also Short doesn’t go around bullying and insulting people like Galloway.

    His own voters will abandon him gradually. Respect’s leader, a young Muslim woman at that, quit the party last year so it’s not hard to conceive that the people who are (or were) his closest allies could do the same. The man’s an egotist.

    Furthermore, left wing politics have never really been about populism, it’s about trying to properly engage people with a set of beliefs that differ from the conventional centre right. In a way, populism is a form of anti-establishment politics that is best done by those often to the right of mainstream parties. Nigel Farage is our best example. I don’t agree with all UKIP policies, but it is refreshing that someone has been able to reposition the debate on unpopular matters like EU membership and the movement of people from Eastern Europe. He’s a lot more entertaining than anyone in the Tories, Labour or Lib Dems. Moreover he’s not obnoxious like Galloway.

    Owen Jones could picked someone more suitable than this. Caroline Lucas maybe.

    • JoeDM

      I agree with your points about Nigel Farage. He is a breath of fresh air in British politics.

  • Emma, I think you fail to appreciate how politcal the “anti-politics vote” is. Politics, though crucially relevant to matters of everyday life, has become the possession of an unrepresentative elite. Those at the top can, if they please, ignore those below – this produces consequences such as the housing crisis and the Iraq disaster.

    What you describe as the “anti-politics vote” is, in part, born out of the exasperation of the powerless, they want to share their experience of disenfranchisement with those at the top – who only start to listen if they think their feeding trough is about to be taken away. This is why Galloway’s victory in Bradford West shook the Labour Party and why Farage has become the tail that can wag he Tory dog.

  • IAS2011

    I have struggled with this one, to some degree.

    In depth, I do acknowledge why George Galloway is pictured and expressed by politicians and the press in the way he is. It’s purely because his views go strongly against that of the ‘normal pathway’ in our political scene. But, what is important here is that this does not mean he is wrong.

    For example, I have always questioned the real independence of the BBC, whose reporting and dialogue in this area always seems to be ‘careful’ – as opposed to being highlighting ALL the facts – even being bold enough to welcome two-sides of the coin and thus enable intelligence to grow within the minds of people.

    If one was to turn the TV channel just a couple of notches away from BBC news 24, one would see that the other side of the picture is being highlighted clearly – both in dialogue and scene. Surely, Mr Galloway has become ‘intelligent’ enough to acknowledge this difference by UK media and others, and has gone out there to capture a fundamental balance that provides opportunity for minds to form opinions based on a balance of information – rather than doing what is simple and adopting a one-sided view? Is this so wrong? It most certainly does purposely counteract the new media and political grounding here in the UK.

  • Daniel Speight

    I watched last week’s Question Time Emma and it was surprising the amount applause Galloway received, indeed far more than the other guests. As Owen Jones says it was Galloway that sounded like he was one of the people, not our own Mary Creagh.

    I think it would well be worth some of the younger party members studying how he achieved this, how Galloway becomes something other than the professional politician that many in the audience felt that Mary was.

    Although both Galloway and Creagh started in politics at a young age, he seems to carry the old Labour traditions while she is very much into new Labour speak. He should be the one who sounds more like a politician having entered parliament 18 years before her. Of course the fact he can get a crowd cheering fairly radical ideas doesn’t mean that you will get the votes, but if I were Mary I would start to exercise speaking without sounding like one of the political class. There may be pluses in going to Oxbridge for Mary, but I suspect it would help if she didn’t sound like she had been there. I don’t mean accent either, I mean in what she says and how she says it.

  • I really detest Galloway, but I was cheering him on QuestionTime. Owen Jones had a real point.

    And, despite his largely Muslim base in Bradford, he did vote for equal marriage.

  • I really detest Galloway, but I was cheering him on QuestionTime. Owen Jones had a real point.

    And, despite his largely Muslim base in Bradford, he did vote for equal marriage.

    • “I really detest Galloway, but I was cheering him on QuestionTime.”

      It’s a funny old world.

  • May I also say that Galloway has a messy or non-standard personal life. But still comes out fighting. That resonates with a lot of working class people.

    Poor Ed Miliband seemed to be more or less stampeded into marriage with his very nice partner merely to adhere to some what old fashioned Tory standards about what a standard family is.

  • AlanGiles

    ” Galloway’s style of anti-politics rhetoric – the endless repetition of his “three cheeks of the same a*** ” line for example – may be amusing, but it is designed to win an anti-politics vote, not to bring people more into politics”

    But the point is, that phrase resonates with ordinary people: they see what he means much more than when Ed M and his merry men and women keep parrotting “one nation”

    Nobody seriously believes we will ever be “1N” – certainly not while well-heeled Oxbridge politicians talk about “jobs” for everybody else, but of their “careers”. Not while some overweight MP can claim a couple of hundreds of pounds each month as a “food allowance” to top up his meagre income of £65,000 p.a. – people earning a small wage in a shop get nothing like that sum,and they have to buy their own food outright. Those same people might well only have a part time short contract job.The MP can make his job as part-time as he likes (leaving him free to do some “work” for a football club in his free time, or going on extended lecture tours, or idling the day away on Twitter. And he is on a 5 year fixed contract – provided he doesn’t break the law, and even if he does, he might get away with it if he (or she) is “too depressed” to answer the charges.

    Politicians tend to patronise the people – whether it is the shadow chancellor slumming at Greggs or the revoltingly inept and dishonest Duncan-Smith getting so “worried” about benefits. As somebody who has taken an intelligent interest in politics for 50 years, I have to say for the past 15/16 years the three main parties have grown closer in policy ideas., Regardless of party, they have “great ideas” which, in reality, is just tinkering from what they inherited from their predecessors. Everything must be done with one eye on News International and Associated Newspapers. Then when it nears election time, the public are being asked to believe that all the problems we face are soley the responsibility of the other side.
    People don’t believe it anymore, none of the parties rhetoric, there is no more chance of Britain becoming “one nation” than there is of Osborne suddenly developing commonsense and gumption, or Chris Huhne personal integrity. It is a really depressing thought that Labour are only likely to win the next election, not because they have any genuine WORKABLE alternatives (and borrowing the LibDems “Mansion Tax), but because the current government are so inept they will merely be considered the lesser of two evils. But the public are not fools – they don’t believe the 1N cobblers, because they know, just as for the last 30 years, policy will be “adjusted” accprding to whether the red or the blues win. The status will remain quo.
    By the way, I wish to disassociate myself from GGs views on rape or being personally offensive to Jewish speakers, as I am sure one or two people will regard this post as an endorsement of George Galloway. The point is, Galloway has his finger on the pulse of the ordinary person. Miliband and Cameron won’t find the pulse where they keep their fingers.

  • Brumanuensis

    I’d like to echo the views of some of the other posters, in that whilst I find Galloway repellent, politically and personally, he is a truly outstanding orator. I watched him speak at the Tenth Anniversary demonstration against the Afghan War in 2011 and although I only agreed with about a quarter of his speech, it was a rhetorical tour-de-force.

    But that does also emphasise Emma’s point that fundamentally, Galloway is a demagogue and ideologue. And they aren’t really friends of any sort, nor can you trust them to be consistent or fair-minded.

    • AlanGiles

      Yes he is a great orator – he is the political equivalent of Dylan Thomas – Miliband and Cameron and Clegg are more Pam Ayres.

  • charles.ward

    If the three main parties are “three cheeks of the same arse” then George Galloway is the hole.

    • LOL

    • Brumanuensis

      That was actually quite amusing. A chuckle was earned.

  • Lamia

    Very good article Emma. As you noted, and what Galloway fans, grudging or otherwise, invariably overlook, Galloway has a habit of shouting down opponents. His ‘debating’ style runs thus:

    1. Galloway gives a fiery speech/answer, getting marks for plain/ornate speaking and ‘passion’.

    2. It’s the next person’s turn to speak. Galloway tuts loudly, scoffs, and then actually interrupts, ‘passionately’ shouting down the opponent, using up their time, interrupting again, having another little speech for himself in their time, and then opponent has the last ten or fifteen seconds to make their point.

    Or, as he is now perfecting it:

    1. Galloway speaks.

    2. Opponent starts to speak, Galloway flies into a rage, and storms out.

    Chair of the panel smiles awkwardly throughout. people are so used to Galloway’s bullying interruptions that it seems to rude to interrupt his, er, interruptions.

    3. Galloway gets praised as a passionate, plain speaking rhetorician, his opponents as cowardly and unmemorable.

    The man is a two trick thug. He recycles rhetorical language of the 1930s, to the applause of people who fancy themselves a bit cleverer than average themsleves (“He said ‘popinjay’! The man’s a veritable Shakespeare!”); and then he shouts down and rants at anyone who dares to disagree with him, right down to lowly students.

    For all this, he gets applauded by people who, regardless of their politics, enjoy watching bullies in action. That’s all.


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