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Last Updated: Monday, 11 April, 2005, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
Gloves come off in Bethnal Green
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter, in Bethnal Green

Bethnal Green is sometimes described as the spiritual home of British boxing.

George Galloway
Mr Galloway's election literature suggests he is spoiling for a fight (Photo: Jess Hurd/Report Digital)

But the East London borough can have seen few contests more bloody and bitter than the one currently being played out over who will represent it in Parliament.

The battle between George Galloway - the Glasgow MP expelled from the Labour Party for his comments about the Iraq war - and Labour's Oona King has all the makings of a classic political scrap.

It is New Labour versus "the ghost of Old Labour" (as Mr Galloway describes his Respect Party). The pro-war left versus the anti-war left. The flamboyant maverick versus the party loyalist.

And the atmosphere as the pair faced each other for their first full-scale debate of the campaign was more akin to a heavyweight boxing match than an election hustings.

The tiny Oxford House theatre was packed with noisy supporters of both candidates for the event, which was being recorded for transmission by BBC London 94.9.

The slightly intimidating mood was not helped by the tieless Mr Galloway standing in the doorway furiously chewing gum, looking for all the world as if he was about to go 12 rounds with Lennox Lewis.

Miss King swept past him without making eye contact, and settled into her seat, attempting to appear serene and composed.

Loud cheers

Their early skirmishes focused on local schools and hospitals, with Miss King defending Labour's record of investment and Mr Galloway attacking the privatisation and contracting out of services.

100,000 people lie dead as a result of the decisions she made
George Galloway
But Mr Galloway's uncanny ability to turn any question into a debate on the Iraq war, meant this topic was soon dominating proceedings.

Asked about the problem of drugs in the constituency, Mr Galloway said: "If the Royal Navy was not patrolling the coast of the Persian Gulf but patrolling the coast of Great Britain there would be fewer boats arriving every night landing junk on our shores that ends up in the veins of our young people."

To loud cheers from his supporters, he added: "I think we should have a war on drugs instead of a war on Muslims."

BBC London's political editor Tim Donovan, who was chairing the debate, asked if he thought it "odd" or "misguided" that he should be attempting to unseat one of the few black women in parliament.

"100,000 people lie dead as a result of the decisions she made", replied Mr Galloway, including a lot of women who "had blacker faces than her".

Miss King refused to rise to the bait.

'Genuine view'

Challenged about her unswerving loyalty to the government, she said: "I have voted against the government, but I do not wear it as a badge of pride, a badge of honour. I am here to see that Labour values, which are about good, decent people getting a fair opportunity in life and those life chances not being prescribed by their background or their birth."

What makes me sick is that when I come across someone who is guilty of genocide I do not get on a plane and go to Baghdad and grovel at his feet
Oona King
On the war, she said she believed action needed to be taken against Saddam Hussein long before George Bush "stole" his first US presidency.

She admitted that voting to back the war had not reflected the view of many of her constituents, but it was her "genuinely held view".

Mr Galloway claimed Respect was the "ghost of Labour's past" and would oppose London's Crossrail and fight to build more council houses in the area.

Miss King shot back: "George Galloway says he wants to deliver more money for housing. Mr Galloway couldn't deliver a pizza."

Local candidates

As these two slugged it out, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates - both local men with strong roots in the community - were struggling to make an impact.

Lib Dem Syed Nurul Islam Dulu accused the Labour and Respect candidates of conspiring to deprive Parliament of a Muslim MP.

And he dismissed Mr Galloway's claim to the anti-war vote, saying: "One man can't change anything in British politics."

Conservative candidate Shahagir Bakth Faruk denied his party's support for the Iraq war would hinder his chances.

And he mounted a strong defence of his party's immigration policy, claiming - to booing and cries of "shame" from Mr Galloway's supporters - that "we live in a small country" and "most of the people feel that our public services are overstretched".

Shadow boxing

But the main event was Galloway and King - and by the end they were fighting like the proverbial ferrets in a sack.

Miss King said a vote for Respect in Bethnal Green and Bow was a vote for the Tories, citing a recent Conservative win in a local council by-election.

Mr Galloway insisted it was a "two horse race" between himself and Miss King, dismissing the other two candidates as being "not fit to be members of parliament".

Then - after shadow boxing about the election being "a choice between whether Britain is run by the Tories or Labour" - Miss King moved in for the kill, with a pointed reference to the infamous clip of Mr Galloway apparently praising Saddam Hussein's "courage" and "indefatigability".

"What makes me sick is that when I come across someone who is guilty of genocide I do not get on a plane and go to Baghdad and grovel at his feet," she said.

But it was Mr Galloway's turn not to rise to the bait and pair ended the debate by rowing over electoral reform, which, ironically, they both support.

Neither candidate had managed to land a knockout blow.

But things could get very ugly indeed before the final bell.



Listen to the Bethnal Green debate