A leader in crisis ... stubborn representatives voicing discontent and being "unhelpful" ... on this occasion it's not Dave or Ed who are getting it in the neck. This time it's George Galloway and Respect that have lurched into yet another crisis. What sparked this episode off was a bit of old news. Back in June Galloway announced that he has "a committee" looking into the possibility of his running for London Mayor in 2016. "I'd like to fight Boris Johnson ..." he said (this was before Boris announced he would not be seeking re-election). Then yesterday came the news that two Respect councillors had got suspended for "attempts to subvert the party". One of the two, Cllr Ishtiaq Ahmed in this Graun interview said:
"People are always asking me: where's George? This weekend I had more than 20 calls from constituents asking me why George is talking about London and not Bradford. As councillors we have only had one strategic meeting with him in the past year ... I'm always reading on his Twitter feed about his appearances in Westminster, his Edinburgh Fringe show, his tour in Scotland – it sometimes feels as though he goes everywhere but Bradford."Cllr Alyas Karmani added:
"If he really wants to be mayor of London, the campaigning starts now, and I don't see how he can be a good MP at the same time. In the meantime, he's still got two more years here [until the 2015 general election] and he should be here. We want him to be more visible in Bradford. George does make himself available here, but whether it's at the level we want is debatable."The second of the suspendees, Cllr Mohammed Shabbir reportedly said of the Gorgeous One's contact with him: "All I hear is from Twitter, Facebook or Ron [McKay - a long term Galloway aide]. It's frustrating to say the least – and disappointing for the community."
Unsurprisingly the remaining three Bradford Respect councillors have resigned from the "party" and are demanding the charge be dropped and any suggestion their colleagues acted improperly be withdrawn.
Deary me. I'm all for elected representatives being held to account by the organisations they represent, and on the face of it the councillors have broken with party discipline and brought their party into disrepute. But come on, we know what the score is. Rules in Respect are for the ordinary member or local councillor, not Galloway. Has he ever been censured by his organisation for his antics? Has he ever been held to account for stupid comments and deeply undignified behaviour?
If not this, it would have been something else. Respect, like the Scottish Socialist Party before it and UKIP now is held together by the charisma of the great political hero. In Galloway's and Tommy Sheridan's cases it's about time served in the service of labour and anti-war movements (regardless of what one thinks of them). For Nigel Farage it's the ability to drink a pint in a pub and not look awkward doing so. But their organisations are quite brittle and unstable. This is because their strength is disproportionately owed to the media profile of their figurehead. Minor parties, if they are to be stable over long periods of time need to embed themselves into one or more constituencies. The mainstream parties all are. The forces they express "sociologically" discipline them and give them life. It's why, as more than one commentator has observed, every split from Labour's has withered away into irrelevance, for example. UKIP, compared to the Tories they seek to supplant, is highly unstable. But very respectable votes in-between major flaps of media activity and nearly 20 years of continuous existence could suggest that a niche is finally being carved out by them among disgruntled middle-aged to elderly (mainly Tory) men. They are finding firm footing.
Respect is different and is heading in the opposite direction. Its launch and subsequent performance almost 10 years ago tried to build a coalition of the traditional, but disaffected elements of the labour movement, the anti-war movement and Britain's Muslim communities. For a variety of reasons this coalition (remember, Respect was originally billed as 'The Unity Coalition', leading to much sectarian hilarity with the initials RUC) only appealed to a minority of each and was to progressively break down but it did achieve real weight among Muslims pissed off with racism and radicalised by Blair's war in Iraq. But when the breakdown came with the splits, fallings outs and dissipation of energies it became more and more difficult to find and keep a constituency - especially as Galloway's polarising behaviour remained unbidden. In a few short years after the departure of the SWP, and then last year's resignation of Salma Yaqoob and her supporters Respect moved toward what it is now: an outright Galloway vehicle. As the so-called Bradford Spring showed, it was capable of impressive feats of electoral display under certain circumstances. Yet more than ever Respect is now George Galloway's Respect. And as such, it's ability to become anything other than a fan club as it approaches its 10th birthday is stymied. Bereft of opportunities to grow, Respect must cling for dear life to Galloway's person. It will go where he goes. The question is, of course, what happens when he has no more use for it?