Well, it’s official: Respect can now organise in Scotland, allowing George Galloway to enter the fray in next year’s Scottish Parliament election. The thought of Galloway suddenly immersed in matters such as the budget allocated to South Lanarkshire Council amuses me as he is not seen as very good at such matters and it’s notable that when a Dundee City Councillor, he is most notable for getting the Palestinian flag flown at City Chambers.
It’s interesting that he is regarded as a man of principle. Let’s review this.
Firstly, despite being a staunch critic of New Labour, the trigger for him to break away was his getting booted out of Labour and it’s telling that at the subsequent election (and indeed, the one after that), he decamped from Glasgow to London, yet now expects Glasgow to welcome him back with open arms.
He hates the Tories… unless the choice is between a left-leaning independent Scottish government and a Tory Government at Westminster.
He’ll criticise any attempt to keep him from representing his constituents… unless he’s the one making the attempt by signing up for Big Brother.
He’ll support any direct action by the common people… but he’ll gladly work for Press TV, the mouthpiece of an Iranian regime that suppresses it brutally.
He’ll oppose illegal wars… unless they’re being conducted by Hamas or Hezbollah.
He’s against the killing of civilians… unless they’re Israelis, in which case they had it coming.
You get the idea: I am not a fan. But let’s leave that aside and look at the key question: can he win?
Again, I’m sceptical. Let’s begin by asking if the support is there.
Galloway estimates that 10,000 votes will get him a seat in Glasgow. It’s more along the lines of 10,884: that’s how many the Greens have (notionally) in the Region. But even that may not be enough – David Denver has the Greens losing their seat anyway as a knock-on effect from the SNP losing a constituency and getting compensation on the list. On that basis, Galloway would require 11,525 votes which would prevent the SNP getting its fifth seat.
Fortunately for him, Glasgow is the one place where there are enough potential voters to get him that number and it’s the split between the SSP and Solidarity that saw neither of them get in, and Patrick Harvie get re-elected instead.
But there’s a problem: those potential voters are already split three ways.
The first option is Solidarity: they came the closest to getting back in to Holyrood thanks to the Tommy Sheridan factor, but since then things have been ropey. Its one Councillor defected to Labour and it fought the last two elections under someone else’s banner: No2EU in 2009 (they came tenth out of eleven, even behind an Independent about whom there’s very little information); and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, mustering only ten candidates. And Tommy himself came nowhere near even keeping his deposit in Glasgow South West. With or without Sheridan, the wheels have fallen off the Solidarity wagon and there’s also the small matter of the perjury trial to factor in. If he gets off, he reclaims the wow factor and potentially shuts out Galloway altogether. If he goes down, Solidarity’s last asset(?) is lost and Galloway can claim their votes… but the one thing they do provide is a lesson that just being a big name doesn’t get you votes. If it did, Tommy Sheridan might still be an MSP, and he’d certainly have kept his deposit in an area where he once secured more than a quarter of the available votes.
Then there’s the SSP. It’s obvious that they’re a shadow of the pre-split party they once were. In 2001 they managed to field 72 candidates; in 2010, just ten. The 2007 result nearly did for them but since then they have recovered and generally outperformed Solidarity: they out-polled them in Glasgow East and Glenrothes; only in Glasgow North East, where Tommy Sheridan himself was the candidate did Solidarity win that particular battle, and even then, he didn’t keep his deposit. So despite expectations, the SSP keep ticking along and have succeeded where Solidarity have failed in another way: they still have their Councillor, Jim Bollan in West Dunbartonshire. Can Galloway claim their votes? No. They stuck with the SSP despite (and in many cases, because of) Tommy Sheridan’s departure. They won’t be swayed by George.
So what about the Socialist Labour party? They came close to winning a seat in 1999 but their failure to do so saw them completely eclipsed by the SSP and Tommy Sheridan. Since then, they’ve operated below the radar, despite a brief spike in Glasgow North East in 2005 (which failed to be carried over into the By-Election and probably had more to do with their candidate being the only one to have the word ‘Labour’ in their description while Michael Martin was seeking re-election as the Speaker). I’ve always said that this party’s long-term structure depends on Arthur Scargill, and it will be interesting to see how his withdrawal of voting rights from the NUM affects his party’s success, if at all. But again, if the party continues (or even if it doesn’t), will Galloway pick up their votes? No. They resisted Tommy Sheridan and the SSP and have resisted George Galloway and Respect outwith Scotland up to now. That will still be the case in Scotland.
There’s also another factor: Galloway’s own party is not without its own strife, most notably its damaging split with the SWP which formed the Left List prior to the 2008 London elections, suffered its own split earlier this year, then hitched its wagon to the TUSC (it was already allied with Tommy Sheridan in Scotland). It’s possible that the party (or a faction of it) may go its own way altogether, particularly if Tommy Sheridan is out of the equation (he brought them into the SSP fold as National Convener, then they went with him to Solidarity) and Galloway’s intervention provokes them. His presence may split the left wing vote not just four ways, but five or potentially more.
That means he has to seek votes from the Big 5. We can rule out the Tories as a source of votes, and I think LibDem voters are unlikely to make that particular switch.
Can he pull away Green voters? I don’t think so: I think that any Green voter who wasn’t swayed by the SSP at their zenith (or former supporter of other parties who chose the Greens ahead of the SSP in 2003) won’t be swayed by George Galloway. He might, potentially, be a threat to their seat but not to their votes.
The SNP? Again, no. The SSP pulled SNP votes away in 2003, but remember that they wanted an Independent Socialist Scotland, a vision attractive to disaffected SNP supporters. George Galloway is a staunch Unionist so won’t be able to gain those voters as easily as Tommy Sheridan did.
That leaves Labour. He’s had success taking Labour votes in England, and he’s gambling that this, the return of the prodigal son, will see him do the same in Glasgow. It isn’t impossible, but it is unlikely: we are about to enter a very polarised contest and in 2007, the Labour Regional vote broadly held up (they actually increased their poll on 2003 and their vote share only went down as a result of the increased turnout). This is a close contest and Labour supporters who want a Labour government will do what they did this year: they will vote for Labour. The party was highly effective at marshalling its vote (using the Tory stick) in May and it will use the SNP stick next year, arguing that if you don’t want the SNP re-elected, you have to vote Labour. This is, broadly speaking, correct, though it does as always beg the question of what Labour do want. But still, the circumstances that saw everyone but the top two squeezed out last time are still in play. And that makes Galloway’s job even harder.
He needs more votes than he has. And he needs more votes than he can probably get.