Here’s another report on the Oona King-George Galloway election in Bethnal Green and Bow (“London’s equivalent of Brooklyn”), this one from the American liberal magazine The New Republic.
(If you don’t have a subscription, you can read it here.)
Not much new to Harry’s Place readers, except the following:
[I]n 2002 [Galloway] wrote of his experience on “the crowded dance floor of a North African nightclub … dancing with Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister of Iraq”…
Yes, the same Tariq Aziz whom George is trying to spring from prison.
What kind of dance do you suppose they were doing on that special night together? Probably not the hora. Was it the hustle? The lambada? The macarena? The funky chicken? Call me a sentimental fool, but I’d like to think they were doing an old-fashioned rumba.
by James Forsyth
To date in this election campaign, one candidate has received a death threat, the other has had her car tires slashed, and religious leaders are appealing for calm. Where is this happening? Not in Beirut, but in London. In the city’s Bethnal Green and Bow district, George Galloway, who famously told Saddam Hussein in 1994, “I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability,” is trying to defeat sitting Labour Party MP Oona King. The country’s May 5 general election is likely to produce a comfortable victory for Tony Blair’s Labour Party–which means that the Galloway-King race may be the day’s most important vote. That’s because the unseating of King, a black Jewish woman, in the second most Muslim district in the country–almost 50 percent of its voters are Muslim–could splinter British urban politics along ethnic and religious lines for years to come.
Bethnal Green and Bow is in the heart of London’s East End, and Labour has held the district continuously since 1945. London’s equivalent of Brooklyn, it has been the home of new immigrants for centuries. The district contains Brick Lane, the street made famous by Monica Ali’s novel of that name, and it now has a huge Bangladeshi population. In the 2001 election, King won more than 50 percent of the vote in a six-candidate field. She epitomizes the tolerant, hip, multi-ethnic city London has become: Her father was an African-American civil rights activist, her mother a half-Hungarian half Scots-Irish Jew, and she herself is married to an Italian.
Were it not for Iraq, King would be cruising to reelection; instead she is in a battle that appears to be close. Her vote for the war did not sit well with her Muslim constituents, and Galloway, a former Labour MP now running as the candidate of the newly formed Respect Party, is capitalizing on their anger. His election leaflet has a picture of King’s head superimposed on the body of an American tank commander. “Warmongers out!” it reads. At a public meeting with King and other candidates on Wednesday, Galloway took the issue a step further, claiming that “if you make war against Muslims abroad you’re going to end up making war against Muslims at home.”
The race hit the front pages in Britain on April 10, when youths threw eggs at King as she honored East End Jews killed by Nazi bombing raids. One young Muslim afterward told a Daily Telegraph reporter: “We all hate her. She comes here with her Jewish friends who are killing our people and then they come to our back yards. It is out of order. What do they expect?” King herself admitted to The Times of London that her background has proved “hugely problematic.” She has accused Respect of stoking anti-Semitism. (The party has responded by threatening to sue King for libel.) One thing seems certain: If King loses, parties will think twice about running Jewish candidates in districts with large Muslim populations.
Galloway, dubbed “Gorgeous George,” has been an MP since 1987 and is regarded as one of the House of Commons’ most gifted orators. He is also one of its most hardened leftists. “I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life,” he told the Guardian in 2002. The signature issue of his political career, however, has been the Middle East. Even before he was elected to Parliament, Galloway managed to persuade his hometown of Dundee in Scotland to symbolically partner with the West Bank city of Nablus. Since Blair became party leader in 1994, Galloway has been a constant thorn in the side of New Labour. His support for Saddam–he earned the nickname “the member for Baghdad Central” and in 2002 he wrote of his experience on “the crowded dance floor of a North African nightclub … dancing with Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister of Iraq”–stretched the relationship to its breaking point. In November 2003 he was expelled from the party for what Labour Chairman Ian McCartney described as inciting “foreign forces to rise up against British troops.”
Galloway has been fighting allegations that he was on Saddam’s payroll and won a libel action in December 2004 against the Daily Telegraph for its reporting on the allegations. After his expulsion from the Labour Party, Galloway founded Respect, a bizarre fusion of the far left and Islamists. The alliance is one of convenience: How do you combine gay equality with a hard-line interpretation of the Koran? Thus far, it looks like the glue of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment will prove powerful enough to keep the party together in the medium term. King, the Observer reports, warns her constituents that the success of this alliance would transform city politics: “At stake here is whether we have a politics that appeal to people’s religious background or ethnic background, rather than a politics based on issues.”
Unnerving enough on its own, a King defeat could also spark a backlash against British Muslims similar to the one Pim Fortuyn inspired in the Netherlands. Immigration and asylum policy is already so potent an electoral issue that the opposition Conservatives have made it the centerpiece of their campaign. If King were sunk by a voting bloc that seems uninterested in integration it could lead many Britons to conclude that Muslims threaten the country’s liberal political culture. The Labour Party clearly realizes that more than the fate of one MP is at stake in Bethnal Green and Bow. The editor of the local newspaper, Malcolm Starbrook, observed to me in a telephone conversation that there have been “more cabinet ministers parachuting into the East End in the last five days than we have had in the last fifty years.”
But it is an Iraqi who may yet be able to save King’s campaign. Abdullah Muhsin, the London representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, has been speaking at meetings in the district and telling voters about the struggle for a democratic Iraq. He told me in a phone interview that when Bethnal Green and Bow residents ask him about Galloway, he responds–with a certain understatement–that “Galloway’s friendship with the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein has not been very helpful to the cause of the Iraqi people.” It would be a powerful expression of democratic solidarity if a citizen of the world’s newest democracy can prevent one of the oldest democracies from seating, in the mother of all parliaments, a man who boasts about having danced with Tariq Aziz.
James Forsyth is assistant editor at Foreign Policy.