An MP in the house: Respect? You're having a laugh

He's taken on Tony Blair and won a seat in Parliament for the anti-war Respect Coalition. He's taken on a US Senate committee and won. But has George Galloway's decision to go on the reality television show 'Celebrity Big Brother' damaged his reputation irreparably? Terry Kirby reports
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The Independent Online

It is a busy week in the deprived but vibrant inner-city community of Bethnal Green in east London. Yesterday was the important Islamic feast day of Eid al-Adha, which was being observed by the majority-Muslim population while tomorrow sees a major parliamentary debate on the cross-London rail link, a crucial factor in the economic future of such a deprived area. And many local people are still gravely concerned about the implications of the Department of Health's decision just before Christmas to put a hold on plans to re-build the prestigious but crumbling Royal London Hospital on the Whitechapel Road.

Meanwhile, the area's MP has chosen to insulate himself from this time of both celebration and discussion and spend his days instead on a television reality show, in the company of two cross-dressers, a Paris Hilton lookalike, a glamour model, a former star of Baywatch and a former television entertainer whose fall from grace involved sex, drugs and a death in his swimming pool. It is a fairly rich mix, even by the normal standards of Celebrity Big Brother.

When he was elected as the Right Honourable Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow in May after a bitterly fought contest, George Galloway promised that he would provide a powerful voice for the area's Muslim community. They were the people whose opposition to the Iraq conflict had given him the support he needed to defeat the incumbent and Blairite Labour MP Oona King, whom he accused of backing the war and ignoring the needs of locals.

Yesterday, instead of - as some Muslim leaders might have preferred - making courtesy visits to neighbourhood mosques, he was wearing a white coat as "Big Brother's Lab Assistant" and taking part in a strange task designed to test some scientific theories - such as "Does spinach make you strong?" - which involved his follow housemates all wearing purple, including the one sporting fishnet tights, high heels and showing his rear to the audience. But at least Mr Galloway is being paid - a rumoured £60,000 - for the privilege of being involved.

"On a day like today, which is an important day for the local Muslim community, one would have expected him to at least have visited the local mosque to show his respect. Instead, he appears to be in some kind of brothel," said Abdal Ullah, a member of the local Metropolitan Police Authority and chair of its community engagement committee. "This is an area that needs strong representation and he was elected because that was what he promised. But now we are seeing his true colours. This is all about George Galloway."

Mr Ullah is not the only Muslim leader to attack Mr Galloway: "Frankly, it is bizarre. His work should be here, not in the Big Brother house," said Sirajul Islam, a member of Tower Hamlets council for Bethnal Green. Muhammad Bari, chairman of the East London Mosque, could not be contacted yesterday because of the holiday, but has been reported as saying that many Muslims would find Mr Galloway's actions "unpalatable". His view is significant: during the election, it was the non-political Mr Bari who urged Muslims to vote, despite a campaign by extremists urging them to avoid the ballot box.

A substantial groundswell of opinion against Mr Galloway now appears to be building up in the constituency. Last Friday, as he enjoyed his second day in the Big Brother house, the MP's constituency surgery was taken by colleagues from his Respect party against a backdrop of protesters marching up and down outside carrying banners saying "Get back to work, Galloway" and "Where Are You?"

An online petition has also been set up by a body calling itself the United Residents of Bethnal Green and Bow. Their website calculates the amount it has so far cost local taxpayers to have their MP in the house: yesterday afternoon it stood at £812.46.

In Brick Lane yesterday, down which Mr Galloway was carried shoulder-high on the morning after his victory, there were also critics: "He shouldn't be on Big Brother because there's a lot that needs to be done here. There are huge community concerns about housing and cleaning,'' said Akthar Hussain, 23. There was, however, one voice of support: "It's a good opportunity to get the anti-war message across. George can't actually do much on a local level here anyway as Labour control the council. Celebrity Big Brother allows him to wake people up to what is happening,'' said Azmal Hussain, 53, who also happens to be a committee member of Respect.

Criticism extends beyond the constituency itself and Mr Galloway's political opponents have not been slow to exploit it. Jim Fitzpatrick, Minister for London, accused him of being a "C-list politician with an A-list ego" while Meg Hillier, who represents the neighbouring Hackney South and Shoreditch constituency for Labour, said she was considering making a complaint about Mr Galloway's absence to the Speaker of the Commons.

Mr Galloway could have ridden out the furore had he established a decent record as a local MP. But since the election, he has had one of the worst attendance records in the Commons, coming 643 out of 645 MPs. He has spoken in only four debates since the election, putting him 556th out of 645 MPs. "He didn't even turn up for the debate on the anti-terror legislation," says Murad Qureshi, a member of the London Assembly.

"Gorgeous" George Galloway is, as they say, no stranger to controversy. Formerly Labour MP for Glasgow Hillhead, he was dismissed by the party in 2003 for his outspoken comments over the Iraq conflict. He was later accused by a US Senate inquiry of taking backhanders, through charities he backed, from the Iraq government. He won a libel case against The Daily Telegraph over similar accusations, receiving £150,000 in damages.

The MP says his reasons for doing the show are twofold. First, it will raise money for the British-based Palestinian charity, InterPal, which he supports and which the US Treasury has, in the past, accused of raising money for the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (Money for the chosen charities of Big Brother participants comes via a percentage of charges for the text and telephone votes for evictees.)

Second, Mr Galloway says he wanted the opportunity to talk to an audience of millions - particularly the "politically untouched" young people who form a large part of its viewers, about the problems of his constituency, and about "war and peace, about Bush and Blair".

But the man who even his critics admitted triumphed in the face of a US Senate sub-committee and whose instincts for political survival are pretty well-honed, may have made a wrong call, misjudging not only Channel 4's ability to give him a platform but also the level of interest of his celebrity housemates in subjects such as the Iraq conflict and the Palestinian question.

Channel 4 stresses it was made clear to Mr Galloway beforehand that it would have to abide by the restrictions of the Broadcasting Act. Anything vaguely polemical is thus edited out, thanks to the time delay used to prevent anything libellous or legally difficult being broadcast - a move that has led to a formal complaint by Respect about "censorship".

Not that Mr Galloway appears to have actually spent much time attempting to discuss the politics of the Middle East with such individuals such as the cross-dressing basketball star Dennis Rodman or Traci Bingham, a former Baywatch actress. "He seems to have expected a more intelligent level of conversation,'' said one Channel 4 source.

Instead Mr Galloway has complained that no one shows any interest in him or what he does and has been reduced to muttering in the corner with the actress Rula Lenska about the other, younger contestants. "Someone of my age and class is not used to young women talking as they do in here, with no orifice left unopened," he confessed. "There's only so much about plastic surgery and genital humour I can take." Clearly, the company of Saddam Hussein must have been considerably more stimulating.

Some observers point out that his low-key, unconfrontational demeanour is exactly the right tactic for winning the show - previous winners such as the comedian Jack Dee and former Take That member Mark Owen succeeded precisely because they declined to be outrageous. Perhaps "Gorgeous George" is simply playing a long game.

But salvation may be at hand. Yesterday, he was named as one of this week's potential evictees, with Jodie Marsh, the model, and Pete Burns, the transvestite former singerof the 1980s band Dead or Alive, who boasts a surgically enhanced pout.

On Friday, Mr Galloway will learn whether he will be evicted from the house. Whether he gets evicted from the other House at the next general election is another matter.