Britain

IT'S ALL ABOUT IRAQ

In London’s most explosive riding, the candidates battle over a faraway war

MICHAEL PETROU May 2 2005
Britain

IT'S ALL ABOUT IRAQ

In London’s most explosive riding, the candidates battle over a faraway war

MICHAEL PETROU May 2 2005

IT'S ALL ABOUT IRAQ

Britain

In London’s most explosive riding, the candidates battle over a faraway war

MICHAEL PETROU

ON A SUNNY SPRING AFTERNOON, Oona King, the young and beautiful incumbent Labour MP, went for a glad-handing stroll through her working-class East London constituency. There were just two weeks remaining in the British general election, but instead of kissing babies and chatting up locals, she trudged glumly behind a phalanx of some 40 police officers. She had little choice. King was pelted with eggs and vegetables while attending a recent memorial service for London Jews who died in a German V2 rocket attack.

Her car has been vandalized. She is loudly heckled every time she appears in public.

But her main opponent, George Galloway, an urbane and vainglorious Scot dubbed “Gorgeous George” because of his silver hair, piercing blue eyes and immaculate clothing, has sometimes fared no better. Police advised the former Labour Party MP from Glasgow not to sleep at home after two dozen young Islamic extremists forced their way into a meeting he recently attended.

They denounced him as a “false prophet” for trying to attract the Muslim vote in the riding, and threatened to hang him. They said voting was un-Islamic, and declared that any Muslims who voted for Galloway faced a “sentence of death.” Police escorted the candidate to safety.

Welcome to the most explosive riding in this election. The tensions here have little to do with domestic politics, and almost

For protection, King requires a police escort as she campaigns

everything to do with Iraq. King, a black Jew and staunch backer of Prime Minister Tony Blair, supported the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Galloway didn’t just oppose it—he went to Iraq to meet Saddam before it began. He helped organize demonstrations, and he branded George W. Bush and Blair “donkeys.” That got him kicked out of the party, and set him on a collision course with his former comrades.

Galloway moved to London and founded his own party: Respect. “It grew out of the anti-war movement,” he says. “We worked and we marched, but we didn’t stop the war—because we didn’t have any political power.” He chose to run in the previously safe Labour riding of Bethnal Green and Bow, where, last time, King received more than twice as many votes as her nearest opponent. But that was before the war, and before Galloway. Now some Labourites admit they fear losing the riding.

Almost half of the constituents are Muslim— citizens Labour could traditionally rely on for support. But the majority of Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims opposed the Iraq war. And, in Galloway, many—notwithstanding the extremist fringe who want to hang him— have found something of a hero. “There is a great deal of anger in this constituency, and a feeling of betrayal,” Galloway says. “People’s hearts were broken over the decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.”

At the Casablanca Café, Joynal Abbin, a restaurant owner, chats over tea. He says he has always voted Conservative, but is now supporting Galloway. “I was against the war, and he is against the war, and that’s it,” Abbin says. Mohiuddin Khan, a Bangladeshi, joins us. He says he, too, is voting for Galloway, because Galloway “supports Palestinian liberation and he hates American aggression. He is working for Muslim human rights.”

But on the street, Anwar Chowdhury, a Labour supporter, says King has worked hard on behalf of the riding for eight years. “Galloway just dropped in—he can’t change anybody’s lives here,” Chowdhury says. “He is getting support from extreme Muslims. My member of Parliament should represent me in the House of Commons. Galloway is a gimmick.” Chowdhury urges me to come to a community meeting that night, where King and Galloway will face off on stage.

THE EAST END of London has always been hotly contested political ground. It’s been home to successive waves of immigrants, most recently Bangladeshi Muslims. Communists have historically found support in these neighbourhoods. But the far right has also had some success. In Bethnal Green, the British National Party polled 7.5 per cent of the vote in the 1997 election (a figure that dropped by more than half in 2001). In a pub across the road from where King and Galloway are scheduled to speak, a man of about 30, with beer on his breath, thrusts his chest into mine and loudly explains: “Galloway is a bad man, isn’t he? He just loves those f—ing foreigners, doesn’t he?” He soon decides that “f—ing foreigners” is a category that includes a reporter from

Canada, before he is calmed down by his more welcoming friends.

Across the street at the People’s Palace lecture theatre of Queen Mary, University of London, crowds of mostly Muslims wait for Galloway and King. Police scan the steadily increasing throng; at least two vans, each carrying 10 riot police, are hidden around a nearby wall. The candidates arrive to cheers and scattered boos. Galloway hugs his way through his many supporters and takes the stage with King and the two other candidates,

WHEN the speeches end, King ducks out a side exit. Galloway walks out the front door and is mobbed by supporters.

from the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties. The speeches break for prayers at dusk, and then resume.

Galloway is in his element. His black suit and silver tie, set off by a bright red “Respect” ribbon, make him look like a welldressed carnival barker. His voice booms; he glowers at his audience from beneath bushy eyebrows, raging against the “high temples of British capitalism.” But it’s when he talks about the war in Iraq that he works himself into righteous indignation. “If you make

war against Muslims abroad,” he bellows to cheers, “you’re going to end up making war against Muslims at home!” King is articulate and earnest. She speaks about reducing poverty and calming tensions among her constituents. But she simply can’t compete with Galloway’s overwhelming presence. When the speeches are finished, King answers a few questions and then ducks out a side exit. Galloway walks out the front door and is mobbed by supporters and journalists.

I want to ask him questions he never addresses in his many appearances. Does he regret telling Saddam, upon meeting the Iraqi dictator in 1994: “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.” Why did he call the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the most murderous regime in history, “the biggest catastrophe of my life”? But earlier in the day, I had managed to ask Galloway other questions that annoyed him. Now, when he sees me, his charm disappears. “I don’t want to talk to that guy,” he growls to a handler. When another journalist confronts him, Galloway tells everyone the reporter is on drugs.

King’s advocates say Galloway’s apparent support is superficial hype, inflated by his more active and vocal cheerleaders. And indeed, most online political gambling sites still predict King will win. But Galloway has been underestimated for years, ever since he managed to unseat the famed British statesman Royjenkins in 1987 to enter the House of Commons at the age of 32. It would be a mistake to underestimate him again. CT1