Election 2010: Can George Galloway repeat 2005 success?

By Brian Wheeler, Political reporter, BBC News

George Galloway’s victory in Bethnal Green and Bow was one of the big stories of the 2005 general election campaign.

But the Iraq war is not the issue it was and as the maverick former Labour MP tries to pull off a similar coup in neighbouring Poplar and Limehouse he is embroiled in one of the toughest and most complex fights of the 2010 general election.

Not that you would think that, to meet him.

Lounging on the top deck of his open-topped battle bus in a black pin stripe suit and shades he alternates between enjoying a “99” brought to him by one of his young campaign team (“Thanks, babe”) and puffing on his cigar.

“I love elections. I will fight elections until the day I die,” he says.

His campaign pitch is to be a “big voice for the East End. A voice that cannot be ignored”.

It is certainly hard to ignore his Respect battlebus, as it weaves its way through the quiet back streets, with its PA set at ear-splitting volume.

‘Amy Winehouse’

Voters wave and toot their car horns, or gaze in bemusement, as Mr Galloway barks out his campaign slogans to a soundtrack of Aretha Franklin (R.E.S.P.E.C.T) and Edwin Starr (“War what is it good for?”)

At one point, he hands the microphone to a shy, barefoot young women, who treats passers-by to a soulful version of “Valerie”.

“Why don’t you come and vote for Galloway,” she croons as her mentor beams in admiration.

“She is better than Amy Winehouse,” he says, planting a kiss on her forehead.

The bookmakers say this is a three-way marginal, with Mr Galloway trailing in third place behind Labour and the Conservatives. Needless to say, he does not see it that way.

“We are going to win this seat. This is easier than beating Oona King last time. She was a much more substantial figure.”

The Iraq war is still an issue on the doorstep, he insists, “because I bring it up”.

On the day I catch up with the campaign, a local Conservative activist is arrested after a scuffle outside Labour candidate Jim Fitzpatrick’s campaign office.

The target of the Tory protest is visiting Labour luminary John Prescott, who manages to resist the urge to land a right hook in the melee.

“I was on his leadership election team,” muses Mr Galloway, of his former Labour colleague Mr Prescott. “He had dinner at my house.”

Are they still on friendly terms?

“There are no pals in politics,” he grins.

‘Four-way marginal’

Poplar and Limehouse was once rock solid Labour territory. There has not been an MP round here from another party for more than a century, but the area is changing fast and Respect grabbed a large chunk of its support in 2005.

It is a dizzying mix of rich and poor, different faith groups and rapidly shifting political allegiances. Wealthy young professionals who work at Canary Wharf live side-by-side with some of London’s poorest families, including a large population of Bangladeshi Muslims and white families who have lived in the East End of London for generations. There are about 14,000 people on the council house waiting list.

“It is the only seat in England like it. It is unique,” says Liberal Democrat candidate Jonathan Freyer, who claims that since the advent of “Cleggmania” it is now a “four-way marginal”.

“It is extraordinary. The Labour vote has collapsed. How much of it is coming to us, how much to Respect or the Tories is hard to say but we are getting some incredible canvassing returns in areas where we have not done very much for some time.”

Religion is also a factor.

Mr Galloway, who is banking on the votes of Bangladeshi Muslims, was harassed by alleged Islamic extremists at a campaign event, who he said “objected to people voting in general, especially Muslims”. Three men were arrested.

Jim Fitzpatrick, who is defending a slender 3,000 majority for Labour, caused controversy when he walked out of a Muslim wedding at London Muslim Centre, Whitechapel, in August, in protest at the segregation of men and women.

He has been shocked and angered to find himself accused of “racism and Islamophobia” in the aftermath of the incident, despite what he says is a 13-year record of working with the community in the area.

Wedding ‘row’

He said he had no argument with the couple getting married, who had requested the segregation, but was taking a stand against the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) – an organisation that calls for Sharia law – which is based in the same building.

“I apologised for the clumsy way it was handled,” he tells me, but admitted it remains a “background issue” in the campaign.

“My row is with the IFE,” he adds, saying he wants to “detach religion from politics in the East End of London”.

A recent Channel 4 documentary alleged IFE members helped get Mr Galloway elected in 2005 in neighbouring Bethnal Green and Bow, something firmly denied by the Respect candidate, who said: “”I don’t know who is or isn’t a member of the IFE, and I have only the haziest knowledge of what they stand for, but the organisation has never approached me for help or attempted to influence me.”

Mr Fitzpatrick speaks of his fellow Glaswegian George Galloway warily, describing him as an “international grandstander” and a “completely different type of politician” to the sort local people need.

“The smart money would say it is between us and the Tories but you underestimate George Galloway at your peril,” he adds.

Tim Archer, a former Canary Wharf worker and local councillor, could be on the verge of an historic breakthrough in this seat, by becoming the first Conservative MP in the East End in decades.

The party has poured in a lot of resources, after boundary changes brought thousands of owner-occupiers into the seat, in upscale Dockland developments in St Katherine’s and Wapping.

“The boundary change has helped no end,” concedes Mr Archer.

‘Galloway myth’

But what has helped more, he says, is that fact that the Conservatives are now the official opposition on the local council.

“People have got a feel for what it is like to have Conservative representation. Previously, when I lost in 2005, there had never been a Conservative on the council.”

The other factor that is helping his campaign is George Galloway “splitting the left vote”, he says.

As a former banker, he has found himself on the receiving end of Galloway invective at hustings events.

“To listen to him speak, you would think the whole financial crisis is down to me,” even though, he says, he was a retail banker and not involved in credit default swaps or derivates.

“Captain Mainwaring would not have been unfamiliar with my type of banking,” he protests, but he insists the seat is a straight fight between himself and Jim Fitzpatrick: “People are starting to see through the Galloway myth.”

“What I am getting a sense of on the doorstep is that people who put their trust in Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow feel let down because he has not done anything for local people.”

Mr Galloway himself hotly disputes the suggestion that he has been a less-than-diligent constituency MP, claiming to have helped “thousands” of local people and to have paid for extra constituency office staff “out of my own pocket”.

Outside Mile End tube station, close to the boundary between the two constituencies, opinion on him is divided.

Paula Williams, one of his former constituents, describes him as a “total opportunist” who has done little for the area: “He is not a nice character. I am not a fan of his approach to politics.”

Others are impressed by his straight talking approach.

“I like him. He is an outspoken fellow,” says William Gardiner, a dapper 80-year-old, who says he will be in Russia with his wife on polling day so unlikely to vote for anyone.

The general election may be too close to call, but it has nothing on this constituency, which could well be the scene of a few re-counts on Thursday night, as at least four parties battle to get enough votes to take it.

“You’re guess is as good as mine as to how it is going to pan out,” says Jim Fitzpatrick.

Also standing in Poplar and Limehouse: Jim Thornton (Independent), Kabir Mahmud (Independent), Andrew Osborne (English Democrats), Wayne Lochner (UKIP), Chris Smith (Green).

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