George Galloway: The Pull of Galloway
George Galloway is perhaps the most experienced ‘newbie’ MP you’ll ever meet. As he walks through Westminster Hall, he urges guests not to step on the plaque to ‘Braveheart’ William Wallace. On the way to the Central Lobby, he points to the statue of Charles James Fox, his favourite parliamentarian (a fellow radical, anti-imperialist with a colourful private life). Up the steps to the Committee Corridor, he identifies the spot where Spencer Perceval was shot dead. And, adding a bit of 20th century history, he even recalls the site where John Reid once threw a punch at him during a row over the first Gulf War.
Like a London cabby showing off his (pre-SatNav era) Knowledge, the newly elected Member for Bradford West certainly knows the nooks and crannies of the Palace of Westminster. He may have a New York radio show, a TV programme in the Middle East, a column in the Daily Record and a new fanbase in West Yorkshire, but the Respect Party MP can’t resist the lure of the House of Commons.
And yet, for all his easy familiarity with the Post Office staff and others, the newest ‘veteran’ in town has this in common with fresh-faced MPs: he still has no office. Nearly three weeks after being elected in one of the most stunning by-election victories in living memory, Galloway is without a Commons base. He explains that the opposition whip for accommodation has offered him a room in the backwater of the Upper Committee Corridor – with no window and walls of hardboard partition. Galloway refused, particularly as he’d discovered that his predecessor Marsha Singh had occupied a recently redecorated and spacious room in Norman Shaw North. Funnily enough, Singh’s room has already been snapped up by former Labour minister George Howarth.
“I have made the point to the Speaker that I have been elected to Parliament six times, in two countries, in four different constituencies – a record that only Winston Churchill can match,” he says. “I am by any account a senior parliamentarian – by the end of this Parliament I will have served 27 years in the House of Commons. I can’t be treated like a freshman who’s just arrived.
“So I won’t accept any flawed propositions. I don’t accept that the Labour whips are responsible for finding me an office; the House of Commons is responsible for finding me an office. If they don’t, they’ll hear about it, whether it is by occupying this room [we’re interviewing him in Committee Room 7, the Lord Liverpool room overlooking the Thames], which I’ve grown rather fond, of or in the middle of the Central Lobby, I’ll set up an office with a trestle table there. So I hope that they receive this message through the good offices of The House Magazine and sort it out.”
So, what is it about the Commons that keeps on drawing him back?
“Only a fool wouldn’t be proud of the initials ‘MP’ after their name. Unlike most people in the House, I have no other initials: having left school very young and having no educational qualifications, MP is the only qualification I have, and it’s something to be proud of because it’s something that other people decide, and bestow upon you. It’s rather like an honorary degree, but more serious. And so on a personal level I’m proud of the fact that I’m continually elected to Parliament, especially in different places and against the prevailing orthodoxy.”
But his real reason for being here is the power of the Commons to get his message – on Afghanistan, on youth unemployment, on Bradford as a place to invest – across to a big audience. “It is a fantastic platform. A word spoken in here is worth 10,000 words spoken outside of here, in the sense that the gravity attached to the national Parliament, the concentration of media. It’s kind of a big media machine, Parliament.”
Despite the expenses saga and lobbying rows, he says the scale of his victory proves that the House is still regarded with some hope and esteem by voters.
“Many MPs have a low reputation, and some of them deservedly so. But if you’d been in Bradford in that campaign you would have seen the value, the importance that ordinary people can still be won to place in this institution. The hopes of 18,347 people, and thousands of kids not yet able to vote who were absolutely deeply involved in our campaign; I’m talking 14-, 15-year-old kids who’ll be voters next time but who were won to the importance of capturing this House of Commons seat. That could make a difference.
“So parliamentarians have themselves to blame for a considerable extent for the disrepute that this institution is held in. But it ought not to be held in disrepute. It is extremely important and we have to somehow win back a public appreciation of that more generally. I would just enter this caveat. Although collectively MPs are poorly regarded, my experience over 25 years is that individually MPs are not held in ill-repute; that they are treated with respect in their constituencies – and in many cases, deservedly so. People still say ‘I’m going to my MP’, and people, by and large, know who their MP is.”
He admits that he did not use the Chamber as much as he could have during his time as MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, and admits that from 2005-2010 he sometimes had to “dodge” his friend Sir Peter Tapsell (who supported him alongside Gerry Sutcliffe at his swearing-in this week) because the Tory grandee felt he should have been speaking up more on foreign policy issues. “The Chamber is my natural milieu and I’m going to spend much more time in it than I did last time.”
Galloway also points out that his East End seat was so close to Westminster that constituents felt he should see them constantly. “No-one in Bradford will be expecting to see me Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. That wasn’t true in Bethnal Green and Bow. All of the people who think like us will be better off for that.”
He isn’t nostalgic for all of the House’s conventions, however: particularly the lack of a means to register an abstention. “The prime minister’s motion, and the leader of the opposition’s amendment, are unlikely to be things that I want to support at all. In a sane voting system I would be able to record the fact that I was here and that I don’t favour either of these two things – which is the reason for my low voting figures in the last Parliament. It’s not to be confused with poor attendance. I was in Parliament every day, in Portcullis House every day, as the CCTV cameras prove. But voting is a different thing.”
Still, some old habits die hard. Galloway says he will vote with his old party: “Of course when I vote it will – almost always – be with Labour.”
He seems to be backing Labour despite, rather than because of, Ed Miliband. He says the Labour leader was the ‘least bad’ candidate on offer in 2010, adding “I was happy that he won, but I can’t say that’s he’s been any kind of success.”
As for attempts by Miliband to distance himself from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Galloway remains unimpressed. Asked if he thinks Miliband is more acceptable than Blair, he replies: “Well, Attila the Hun would be more acceptable to me than Tony Blair – who I note, with some schadenfreude, on the television last night looks increasingly like the portrait of Dorian Gray, dropping in front of us”. He dismisses the Labour leader’s repositioning as “milksop… he tiptoed, on Iraq, at least towards a position of half-apologia”, and insists Labour has not gone far enough.
Although he is a veteran of the Commons, Galloway is new to the recent advances in backbencher rights granted by the Speaker’s regular use of Urgent Questions, and the backbench business committee. But he intends to use the new powers to the full, including working with Paul Flynn for an all-day backbench debate on Afghanistan.
“There are lots of ways that Parliament can be used to give a voice to people’s concerns and preoccupations outside. Because I think this is the main lesson of my victory. This place is a bubble really, so far as most Members are concerned. The fact that I can be really rather popular in the country with a mass audience on my radio shows, my Facebook and Twitter [have] 150,000 people and so on, and yet have very few friends in here, is an indication of two parallel polities that exist in the country. There’s a large number of people out there who don’t think that their opinions are expressed in here, or that there’s an iron clad consensus: and on no issue more vividly than the Afghan war.”
One area where Galloway doesn’t want to speak for his constituents is on religion. He refuses to discuss his own faith in detail, other than to explain his decision to ‘affirm’ rather than swear his oath to Parliament this week.
“It’s wrong to force people to swear oaths in which they don’t believe in order to take a seat in a democratic Parliament, but that’s the situation I was in. I was not going to swear an oath in which I did not believe on a holy book. As for the rest, I don’t discuss that. I’m sorry. All I’ll say is I believe in God.”
It was over foreign policy rather than religion that he nearly came to blows, literally, with John Reid during one incident in the Members’ Lobby more than 20 years ago. Galloway, a boxer in his youth and keen fan of boxing clubs in his new constituency, explains how he atypically – and literally – decided to pull his punches.
“It was during the first Iraq war in 1991. John Reid then was a drinker. Very harsh words were exchanged between he and I in the Voting Lobby, not during a vote in fact. We both exited the chambers through the back doors and he... made a lunge at me. Being the sober person in the fight, I was about to knock him down when the redoubtable figure of Dianne Abbott leapt between us, on top of him and I was therefore disarmed – because first of all she’s a friend of mine, and secondly she’s a woman. There’s nothing more I could do but it saved him from a very sore face.”
Speaking of parliamentary pugilism, Galloway has no sympathy for Iraq war supporter Eric Joyce, a vocal advocate of Galloway’s expulsion from the Labour Party who was himself recently expelled following a drunken Commons brawl.
“None whatsoever. In fact, he’s another victim of the curse of Galloway. So many of the people who have set out to be enemies of mine, from Eric Joyce to Hosni Mubarak, have ended up in trouble of one sort or another,” he grins. “So no, I know it’s sinful to take pleasure in other people’s discomfort but I’m afraid I sinned on that occasion.”
Which brings us on to one final feature of Parliament that is not to the teetotal Galloway’s liking – the many drinking holes dotted around the Palace of Westminster.
“I think these bars should be closed,” he argues. “No-one else can drink at their work. No-one else is allowed to drink alcohol while they’re working. Why are we? Moreover, at subsidized prices – as was. I don’t know what they are now, but when I was in here before they were ‘Life on Mars’ prices – 1970s prices.”
First elected in the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ era of the 1980s, George Galloway seems to be a bit of a political time traveller himself. And as he heads back to the future as a Member of Parliament for yet another seat, he’s not lost any of his gift for controversy. He may not have an office, but he already sounds thoroughly at home.
Galloway on... Afghanistan
“There is absolutely no way that this mission is going to last until 2014. Our soldiers know that there’s a clock ticking. I mean, who wants to be the last to die in Afghanistan?”
Galloway on... Private Eye’s Backbiter column
“I worked for Private Eye for 20 years. I started writing the Letter From…. And then I moved on to be an occasional contributor on other pages.”
Galloway on... Bradford
“By 2020, 50 per cent of the people of Bradford will be under 25. It’s almost north African or south Asian in its statistic. If half the population in a major English city is under 25 and has no work and no money, that’s an accident waiting to happen.”
Galloway on... Lord Ahmed
“For Labour to treat him in the way they have.. makes me think they are on a suicide mission so far as their former loyal supporters in the country’s Asian population is concerned.”