George Galloway and the ‘shock factor’: a symptom of the lack of pluralism in British democracy

George Galloway’s provocative comments on rape are indicative of a wider tendency of electioneering among UK minority parties. As the voting system remains skewed in the interests of the two major parties, the competition for publicity is obscuring the space needed to formulate an alternative politics. 

Samuel Levy
29 August 2012

George Galloway, Respect MP for Bradford West, has embroiled himself once again in a complex and contentious political issue, namely, Julian Assange’s resistance to potential extradition to Sweden. Mr Galloway has been heavily criticised for his recent views on what constitutes rape (see Laurie Penny and Rachel Williams for examples of this criticism). The Respect MP expressed these views in his weekly online broadcast, Good Night with George Galloway, in an attempt to defend Mr Assange against the rape allegations that threaten him with extradition to Sweden, where the alleged rape took place in August 2010. Mr Galloway argued the following:

“Even taken at its worst, if the allegations made by these two women were true, 100% true, and even if a camera in the room captured them, they don’t constitute rape – at least not rape as anyone with any sense can possibly recognise it. And somebody has to say this. Let’s take Woman A. Woman A met Julian Assange, invited him back to her flat, gave him dinner, went to bed with him, had consensual sex with him, claims that she woke up to him having sex with her again – something which can happen. I mean, not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.”

Following these words, Mr Galloway proceeded to describe Mr Assange’s actions as merely “bad sexual etiquette” and “bad manners” in the context of “the sex game” in which Woman A had already agreed to participate by going to bed with him initially.

I will not begin to discuss these ignorant and disturbing words as I think they speak for themselves (for another very recent example of Mr Galloway’s repugnant utterances, see, “you badly need medical help son. Will decent Rangers fans please substitute this windae-licker…”); I will focus instead on the democratic significance of Mr Galloway’s presence and success in UK politics.

By using such intentionally provocative words and expressing such an intentionally provocative opinion with respect to rape, Mr Galloway slams himself onto the political landscape and has himself heard. Having done this, he can subsequently introduce his argument that the attempt to extradite Mr Assange is in fact a “setup” by the USA to have him “silenced forever” in the name of “Imperialism”. It is this method (i.e. coercing the public to listen to him unwittingly by means of incendiary and litigious language and opinions) that has made him such a successful politician. But why does such rhetoric and extreme political positioning succeed within our democracy?

Put simply, our current democratic system lacks pluralism. This takes place in the UK as a result of the FPTP voting process (First Past the Post) which significantly diminishes the chances of smaller parties winning seats in parliament. Other such pluralism-restricting institutional structures exist across the Western world (e.g. the two-party system in the USA). In reaction to this quieting of alternative views and institutional incapacity for a more complex, varied dialectic, members of minor parties, such as Mr Galloway, take on even more radical stances and use belligerent rhetoric because, if they don’t, they simply won’t be heard and certainly won’t get elected.

Mr Galloway won the parliamentary seat in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 because, as Jeremy Paxman pointed out with reference to the words of Nick Raynsford and Tony Banks, he is a “demagogue” who “had deliberately chosen to go to that part of London and to exploit the latent racial tensions there”. Similarly, Mr Galloway won the Bradford West by-election in March 2012 in a surprise victory by a massive margin of 10,000 votes (“The Bradford Spring”, as he himself titled it) because he fought the election “through the invocation of race and faith” – analogous to the election tactics often seen in US Bible Belt politics. Such extreme political measures are seldom seen in the UK but are necessary, as Mr Galloway has cottoned on to, for members of minor parties to gain any modicum of renown or power. As such, Mr Galloway and others like him are ‘forced’ into a corner from which the only way out is radicalism and ‘shock-factor’ electioneering.

It is not that the electorate feels alienated from the major political parties; it is that the electorate requires greater latitude and pluralism in political representation. A political system that encourages greater diversity in the views upheld by those in public office is necessary to express the views of all; otherwise, certain politicians (such as Mr Galloway) will take advantage of the thirst for diversity of the electorate and bring bare rhetoric, radicalism, instability, and madness to the table.

With all this in mind, the failure of the AV referendum in 2011 appears all the more tragic. The issue of voting reform has already drifted into obscurity as a result of the busy political period that the UK and Europe has had since the referendum, but its significance should not be forgotten. It was not simply an attempt by the Lib Dems to increase their share of the vote (or decrease the Tory share); it was a sincere attempt to encourage greater pluralism in parliament and, accordingly, to allow the diverse political views across the UK to be expressed by a multiplicity different sorts of clear-headed, civil politicians, not George Galloway or similar. 

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