In the aftermath of the ‘Bradford Spring’, I thought I’d share a brief recollection of one of my few face-to-face encounters with George Galloway.* It took place amidst a controversy pretty typical of Galloway’s career, where in the face of a straightforward case of socialist principle he instead jumped to defend the Iranian régime.
Four years ago, Galloway was in choppy waters. Having stretched the SWP’s loyalty to him to breaking point with his ‘outspoken’ views on sexual morality and his bizarre Big Brother appearance, in November 2007 he split their Respect venture as to still further exert his authority over it. Nonetheless standing in the May 2008 London elections (though still an MP), he was keen to stay in the media spotlight and thus made an appearance on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff.
At that time there was a news story about Mehdi Kazemi, a 19 year old Iranian whose boyfriend had been executed by the régime for ‘sodomy’. Kazemi was resident in Britain but his asylum application to the Home Office had failed, since only in 2010 was being gay recognised as a sufficient reason to stay in this country (on account of the British state’s view that gay people in Iran could lead a normal life through ‘discretion’).
A campaign was launched in Kazemi’s defence, including a demonstration outside Downing Street that I helped to organise along with NUS LGBT and OutRage!, and the case won significant media coverage, making the front page of the Independent. This pressure would ultimately lead to Kazemi being granted asylum. Nonetheless, as the controversy raged, Galloway struck an unsympathetic posture in the newspapers review on The Wright Stuff. While the main target of the campaign was in fact British asylum policy, Galloway averred that it was an attempt by the ‘pink contingent of imperialism’ to demonise Iran. In fact, he told us, Kazemi’s teenage boyfriend was hanged not for homosexuality but for ‘sex crimes against young men’, an outrageous and utterly unfounded attempt to smear his name with implications of paedophilia. Of course, the ‘sex crime’ in question was homosexuality, the young men being the couple’s own peers.
Disgusted if unsurprised by his statements, I did at least have the opportunity to raise the issue face-to-face at Galloway’s election rally at SOAS the next day. After listening to his incoherent potted history of the Labour Party’s betrayals (Galloway was not actually on the left of Labour prior to his expulsion from it) I was keen to ask a question from the floor. The chair knew me and my politics so refused to recognise my raised hand, though Gorgeous George’s speech had apparently not roused similar interest for dialogue among any of the other attendees.
Instead, I simply took it upon myself to interrupt the silence and mounted an extensive exposition of Galloway’s longstanding record of rejecting women’s and LGBT rights and the Stalinist roots of much of his politics, which was of course rather gratifying. Surprisingly enough, having initially not allowed me to speak at all, the chair did not shout me down, as I would have expected, so after five minutes or so I began to run out of things to say. I’d iterated various instances of his homophobia, implied he was a loyal servant of Tehran and Damascus (what’s worse, without even being in their pay, he did it voluntarily) and said he couldn’t work with the left without trying to dominate it – was any further comment really necessary?
Fortunately Galloway saved me from simply tailing off, standing up from his chair and making a confident, politically-sharp rejoinder to my criticisms. He bellowed “I bet you my house against your jacket (!) that in six weeks I’ll be elected to the London assembly”. It was, indeed, a very nice jacket, one that I since lost by leaving it at the dry cleaners’ when I was in Italy. Unfortunately, much like the actual punchline to Julian Clary’s fisting Norman Lamont/red box gag, my reply to Galloway was drowned out by the mocking laughter his challenge provoked among my own comrades. But, for the record, I asked him which of his many houses I’d actually be getting.
The Portuguese villa would have been nice. Particularly as Respect did, after all, muster a paltry 2.4% in the London Assembly vote, leaving him less than halfway to getting elected. Instead the final Assembly seat went to the BNP’s Richard Barnbrook, who I would later douse in two litres of Idris fiery ginger beer at the top of the escalator at King’s Cross station. I guess you could say that these lashings and lashings of sweet, fizzy nectar provided a certain sense of closure for this sorry episode.