Galloway looks on the bright side despite losing east London stronghold
Jerome Taylor hears the Respect party founder claim the credit for the election of the country's first British Bangladeshi MP
Friday 14 May 2010
If universities ever began offering courses on how to turn a loss into a win, chances are George Galloway would be a leading lecturer. The Respect party founder saw his 23-year-parliamentary career nosedive into ignominious defeat last week but that hasn't stopped him reaching out for any silver linings he can find.
In Shadwell, east London, the only area of the capital where the Respect party managed to get a councillor elected, Mr Galloway held a press conference in which the message was clear: Respect may have been squarely defeated, but it is are not going away.
Flanked by a small following of supporters, the 55-year-old Glaswegian took to a podium under a giant crucifix in a tiny community chapel near Watney Market.
"The election results were very disappointing for Respect," he admitted in a flash of humility that contrasted with his angry oratory on the campaign trail. "We had three target seats, and we hoped to have three members of parliament – which in a hung parliament could have been a magic number. In the end we lost all of those battles. We are bloodied, but we are unbowed."
Then it was back to what George Galloway does best, attacking his opponents. First up was Labour's new MP for Bethnal and Bow, Rushanara Ali, the first British Bangladeshi to be elected to Westminster. Mr Galloway seized the Labour stronghold in 2005 by capitalising on anti-Iraq war sentiment in one of the most Muslim areas of the country to topple the pro-war Oona King. Last week Ali grabbed it back for the Labour party with a majority of more than 8,000.
Not that Mr Galloway seemed all that upset. In his eyes the Labour party have him to thank for that particular electoral victory.
"We are responsible for Britain having its first British Bangladeshi MP and that is something that nobody will ever be able to take away from us," he said. "And a little more credit from the Labour candidate might have been the decent thing to do. Our defeat of Oona King, which led to the election of a British Bangladeshi MP, is our achievement."
Mr Galloway believes that had Oona King won in 2005, she would have remained an MP for decades, making it virtually impossible for anyone from the local Bangladeshi community to win a seat in parliament.
But if Respect is keen to focus on anything faintly positive it is because its star has fallen so low. In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, Respect's birthplace and spiritual stronghold, Labour convincingly beat the party's two parliamentary candidates and almost succeeded in wiping out Respect at a local level, too. The party has gone from eight to just one councillor, Haroon Miah, who was elected in the overwhelmingly Bangladeshi ward of Shadwell.
In Birmingham, the party's second stronghold, Respect fared a little better, getting three councillors elected. But Salma Yaqoob, who could have become Britain's first hijab-wearing Westminster politician, failed in her bid to become MP. Miss Yaqoob, who is widely respected as one of Britain's most successful religiously devout Muslim politicians, upped her share of the vote and came second. Ironically, some of her stiffest opposition came from orthodox and Islamist sections of the Muslim community in Birmingham who felt they either shouldn't vote in a non-Islamic system, or couldn't vote for a woman.
There are also question marks over the party's finances. Azmal Hussain, Respect's chairman in Tower Hamlets, has resigned and says he will no longer give the party "a single penny". But yesterday, Mr Galloway angrily denied any suggestion that his party would struggle financially and said Mr Hussain was not a financial backer.
"The briefest glance at the Electoral Commission's website... will show that Mr Azmal Hussain does not appear at all," he said. "We will be funded in exactly the same way that we've been funded now, which is small donations from people who are not rich, except in spirit, dedication and commitment."
Respect did manage to force a vote in favour of Tower Hamlets – the third poorest borough in the country – having a directly elected mayor. Despite supporting elected mayors in three neighbouring boroughs (Lewisham, Hackney and Newham), the Labour party furiously opposed moves to do the same in Tower Hamlets because they were worried that Respect could seize control of the borough's £1bn budget and continue to influence east London's politics.
But Respect gathered enough votes to force a referendum, and last week Tower Hamlet's constituents voted overwhelmingly in favour of an elected mayor. An election will be held in October and it is clear that Respect hopes to get a favourable candidate elected to keep a foothold in the area.
"We may stand a candidate ourselves, or we may support another candidate if the right candidate comes forward," Mr Galloway said. "But one way or another we intend to be decisive in the outcome of that great battle which will take place in October."
Mr Galloway is due to fly to the US today to begin looking for funding for what he hopes will be a "Michael Moore-style documentary on the Palestinian cause".
Asked whether he might return to make a personal bid for the mayoralty he replied with a wry smile: "I merely say this. If the rumours that we hear are true, that New Labour intends to put up Oona King to be the directly elected mayor in Tower Hamlets, well, I would find such a contest irresistible. So if New Labour wants to put her up, bring it on."
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