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Last Updated: Friday, 13 August, 2004, 06:41 GMT 07:41 UK
Interview: George Galloway
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online political reporter

George Galloway is looking for a house in the East End of London.

George Galloway
Galloway is building a powerbase in the East End

The former Labour MP's new party, Respect, won its first council seat in Tower Hamlets two weeks ago, in a previously rock solid Labour ward, and Mr Galloway wants to capitalise on its growing support in the area.

He is rumoured to be planning to stand against pro-war Labour MP Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow at the next general election.

"I haven't decided to do that yet. I have said that I will likely stand in East London. There are several parliamentary seats in East London and we will be contesting all of them," he tells BBC News Online.

Puffing on a cigar in his comfortable, modern office in Westminster's Portcullis House, "Gorgeous George" is on characteristically bullish form.

'Personal disappointment'

Respect's win in Tower Hamlets must have made up in part for the disappointment of the European elections, I suggest, where he polled 4.8% of the vote in London but missed out on a seat.

I make no apology for saying that in the East End of London a new party of labour, with a small L, is being born
George Galloway

"I think the European election results were a very considerable triumph," he says, given that the party was only five months old and been "roundly ignored" by the media.

"There was a sense of personal disappointment for me. A Jamaican woman described it to me as like having honey on your elbow. You can smell it but you can't lick it. But for Respect I think the European elections put us on the map."

To his enemies George Galloway is the "honourable member for Baghdad North", a left-wing fanatic with a talent for causing trouble.

To supporters, like veteran left-winger Tony Benn, he is "one of the finest socialists, internationalists and democrats of his generation".

Mr Galloway says Respect, which polled 250,000 votes on 10 June, about 1.5% of the vote, plans to field between 25 and 100 candidates at the general election.

Anti-war march
Respect grew out of the Stop the War movement

Its aim is simple - to inflict as much damage as it possibly can on Tony Blair and New Labour.

"We will stand against New Labour MPs who supported the war. We will split their vote and we'll cost them their seat and we are determined to do that," Mr Galloway tells BBC News Online.

Labour support

And he claims there are plenty within the Labour Party who will be cheering him on.

"The attitude of most left wing people inside the Labour party is that they hope we will do well.

"If we do well, it puts more pressure on the Blairites and could lead, in time, to Britain getting its Labour Party back.

"Were that to happen, nobody would be happier than me. I don't expect it to happen, but I wish those who are trying to make it happen well."

He says "at least six" of London's 54 Labour MPs have told him they voted Respect in the European poll.

"If that's repeated throughout the country that's quite a proportion," he adds with a smile.

Lib Dem 'fraud'

But there are some who claim Respect will merely succeed in splitting the anti-war vote and hand New Labour victory.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy said his party would have won the recent Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election if it had not been for Respect gaining 6.2% of the vote.

"The Liberal Democrats are engaged in electoral fraud," Galloway says, by way of a response.

"They are pretending to people that they opposed the war, when, in truth, they opposed it only until it started, whereupon they backed it. And they back now the sending of thousands of more British soldiers to Iraq.

"That doesn't sound very much like an anti-war party to me."

Respect grew out of the Stop the War movement, an alliance of British Muslims and left wing campaigners who succeeded in mobilising a million people to march against the invasion of Iraq.

Hard left

Mr Galloway claims it is the fastest growing party in the country, with 40 new members joining every day. He wants the party to appeal to disaffected Labour voters.

But Respect's opponents claim it is little more than a re-badged Socialist Workers Party, with leading SWP and Socialist Alliance figures prominent among its leadership.

George Galloway and Saddam Hussein
Galloway and Saddam: 'doomed to be an item'
Mr Galloway rejects this analysis - and the claim that the party is using the anti-war platform to sugar coat a raft of hard left policies that have found little favour with the British electorate in the past.

"We built Respect out of the different elements that opposed the war, and they were by no means all hard left.

"Most Muslims in Britain are not hard left. Most of the people on the demonstrations were not hard left.

"The hard left is a very small section of the British population and I myself am not hard left. I am a traditional Labour left-winger."

Kier Hardie

Mr Galloway believes Respect has the potential to be a new party of the left, standing up for working people, pensioners and ethnic minorities abandoned, as he sees it, by New Labour.

He even compares Respect's growing support in the East End, where it gained 15% of the vote in the recent London Assembly elections beating the Lib Dems into third place, to the early days of the Labour Party under Kier Hardie.

"I make no apology for saying that in the East End of London a new party of labour, with a small L, is being born. And I am proud to be involved in it."

Today's East End, he argues, contains the three elements of Respect's core vote.

"It's a large Muslim population. It's a large population of poor white people who have been betrayed.

"And it's a large population of middle class, educated white people, what you might call 'Guardian man and woman', who are mad as hell about the war."

Green pact

The party will be contesting the forthcoming Hartlepool by-election, but despite a candidate, John Bloom, "who is never out of the local media", Mr Galloway admits the area is probably not fertile ground for Respect.

"We are fighting it seriously. But obviously it wasn't a particular stronghold of the Stop the War movement. It is an overwhelmingly white, non-Muslim constituency, and it hasn't had any particular left-wing history."

The truth is I met Saddam Hussein twice
Before the European elections, Respect tried unsuccessfully to form an electoral pact with the Green Party, which would have seen the two parties fielding joint candidate lists.

Mr Galloway says he still expects some kind of deal to be hammered out with the Greens before the general election, even though he admits he has little time for the party's brand of "sustainable" economics.

"I myself have not much in common with the Green Party. I believe in industry, factories, smoking stacks. I want to see growth in the economy. They don't."

He says there are "many points of difference" between Respect and the Greens, but "enough points of similarity" to make a pact sensible.

Saddam Hussein

Respect is also going all out to court trade union support, targeting former Labour affiliates the RMT rail union and the Fire Brigades' Union ("That's our big target, now that they have a political fund, but no affiliation.")

But one potential barrier to mainstream acceptance for Respect is, arguably, Mr Galloway himself.

To many voters, I suggest, he will be forever associated with the 1994 clip of him telling Saddam Hussein: "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, and your indefatigability."

He says the remark, which he later claimed referred to the Iraqi people, "can't be the millstone my enemies would like it to be" because Respect is doing well at the polls and he is in great demand as a public speaker.

But the Glasgow Kelvin MP was the first person Saddam turned to when he wanted help to find legal representation after his arrest. As the MP ruefully admits in his autobiography, I'm Not the Only One, Galloway and Hussein are "doomed to be an item".

For people like me there is no such thing as "foreign tv stations" or "the country" in abstract
"The truth is I met Saddam Hussein twice," he says.

"Exactly the same number of times Donald Rumsfeld met Saddam Hussein.

"The difference is that Donald Rumsfeld was meeting him to sell him guns and gas and give him maps the better for targeting.

"I was meeting him to try and bring war and suffering to an end."

Foreign TV

He spent the 1970s and '80s campaigning against Saddam's regime, he explains, but he was opposed to sanctions against the country in the 1990s, which he claims led to the death of "a million Iraqis".

"Most people have concluded that the whole Iraq story is so seeded with deception that what my enemies say is no longer believed." he adds.

He is also scathing about those who attacked him for appearing on foreign TV stations to criticize British foreign policy.

"For people like me there is no such thing as "foreign tv stations" or "the country" in abstract.

"We stand up for what's right. If our country's doing wrong we must say so.

"It's a great myth that the British public want our soldiers to be sent into harm's way on a bogus prospectus for ignoble reasons. There is nothing patriotic about that. It is the opposite of patriotism.

"It's the use of the lives of young men for the political purposes of two leaders, Bush and Blair, neither of whom have fought their way out of a paper bag, yet are prepared to fight to the last drop of other people's blood."

Smokescreen

He has little time for the British media - and the BBC in particular, which he says had a "major share in the responsibility" for the "disaster" of Iraq by swallowing the case for war "hook, line and sinker".

"People (TV reporters) would talk to me as if I must be either mad or a paid agent of Saddam Hussein to be saying the things I was saying to them."

The subsequent row between Alastair Campbell and the BBC was, in his view, a Campbell-concocted smokescreen to deflect attention from the government's mendacity.

He admits there would have been no Respect without the Iraq war - but denies the party is a "one trick pony".

At the same time, he argues, it is a mistake to think of Iraq as just another political issue.

It is "a truly seismic event that overshadows the whole political scene" and one that will dominate the headlines for years to come. Unless something miraculous happens in the Northern Ireland peace process, Tony Blair "will be remembered for nothing else," he adds.

And if, as he expects, George Bush and Tony Blair are re-elected, "that's going to create a fantastically fertile recruiting ground for us, because the gruesome twosome with another term is likely to sicken even the strongest stomach."

'Potential support'

It is now more than a year since Mr Galloway was thrown out of the Labour Party, after accusing Tony Blair and George Bush of invading Iraq "like wolves".

His Glasgow Kelvin seat is due to disappear at the next general election because of boundary changes.

But he doesn't act like a man on the verge of electoral extinction.

He says Respect has the potential to become a permanent part of the political landscape in Britain, "with the potential support of millions".

And he clearly has his eye on Bethnal Green and Bow.

"I am favourite to win that contest in the bookies in East London now and I haven't even declared I am standing.

"So don't worry too much about me, I think I'll be alright."




SEE ALSO:
Respect win council by-election
30 Jul 04  |  London
Galloway: Saddam trial US 'sham'
01 Jul 04  |  Politics
Small parties make Euro strides
14 Jun 04  |  Politics


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