Behind the ‘Battle of Bethnal Green’

Neither Oona King nor George Galloway deserves the respect of east London voters.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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You could see the disappointment on the journalists’ faces. From the BBC, the Guardian, Channel 4 News (its weekend presenter, Alex Thomson, no less), even from the Scotsman, they descended on the fancifully named People’s Palace on Mile End Road, East London, to watch what promised to be at least one exciting fight in this bland, passion-free General Election campaign: George Galloway vs Oona King, in their only public appearance together, for one night only, and with ringside seats reserved for journos. What a let down, then, when the challengers all but kissed and made up.

If Galloway and King’s previous was anything to go by, last night’s get-together ought to have been sparky. He is the former Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin who was expelled from Labour in October 2003, accused of bringing the party ‘into disrepute’ with his calls for Arab armies to fight British troops in Iraq (which he denies making), and who has since set up his own party – the left-wing Respect Unity Coalition, standing on an anti-war, anti-privatisation, generally anti-New Labour ticket. She was once New Labour through and through, a young black woman who wears slinky suits and was one of the original ‘Blair’s babes’, who has been member of parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow since 1997. They are slugging it out for that seat on 5 May, in what has been dubbed (again a little fancifully) ‘The Battle of Bethnal Green’ (1).

Their clash has gotten ugly. Asked recently if he would mind ousting one of only two black women MPs, Galloway said of King’s support for the Iraq war: ‘[She] voted to kill a lot of women….many of them had much darker skin than hers.’ (2) King alleges that Respect supporters have told Bethnal Green’s many Muslims to not vote for her because her mother is Jewish (an allegation strenuously denied by Respect, and described by an assistant to Galloway, who is something of a compulsive suer, as ‘libellous’) (3). Only earlier this week, King’s car was pelted with eggs and her tyres slashed, apparently by young Muslims pissed off by her pro-invasion stance on Iraq, while Galloway was accosted by Islamic extremists during a meeting with constituents and denounced as a ‘false prophet’ and reportedly given a verbal death threat (4).

The tense atmosphere outside the People’s Palace fed the expectation that last night would be more of the same, and a welcome break from the other parties bickering over MRSA and school dinners. Policemen and women stood at every entrance; police vans were parked nearby, ready to cart off troublemakers. I was asked who I was and what I was doing there four times on my way in, by the keen young Muslims stewarding the event on behalf of the organisers, TELCO Citizens. Respect supporters handed out a leaflet with a faintly ridiculous photo of Galloway in boxing gloves, presumably a nod to his pre-political stint as an amateur boxer as well as a declaration that tonight would be alright for fighting.

In the event, nothing much happened. Galloway and King called a truce, promising to meet with the police to ensure that the election would be ‘safe for everyone’. Galloway, perhaps rattled by his encounter with extremists, expressed his sorrow for what had happened to King in recent weeks and said he would help to ‘take some of the negative atmosphere out of this campaign’. King revealed that they had exchanged telephone numbers. The journalists were not best pleased. ‘This is rubbish’, I heard one say. At one point there was loud shouting in the foyer, and the media legged it out of the hall en masse (while someone was giving a reading from the Koran on stage), cameras and dictaphones at the ready. But it was only a couple of teenagers, apparently, wrestled to the ground by police after trying to get into the meeting without permission.

Yet I thought the blandness of the event was strangely fitting. The Battle of Bethnal Green may have been talked up as a great clash between New Labour and Old Labour (or ‘real Labour’, as Galloway describes himself in a Respect leaflet). But in truth it’s little more than a symbolic clash, a stage fight between an MP who encapsulates the vacuousness of New Labour and a former MP who expresses the exhaustion of the old left. And neither side – whether the principle-free, jobbing MP Oona King or Respect, with its low horizons and conservative manifesto – deserves the respect of Bethnal Green and Bow voters.

Oona King just about sums up the emptiness of the New Labour ‘project’. As a ‘Blair babe’ – one of 101 women elected as Labour MPs in Blair’s victory of 1997, when the overall number of women MPs doubled from 63 to 120 – King and others were expected (by some) to shake up British politics and to put ‘real issues and concerns’ on the parliamentary agenda (5). What became of the babes? Not much. By 2000, Tess Kingham, Labour MP for Gloucestershire, had resigned from parliament because she was ‘fed up with outdated practices and poor working conditions’ (6). One of the babes’ big campaigns has been to make it easier for women MPs to breastfeed in the House. Earlier this month, the Daily Mirror reported that Tony Blair ‘cringes’ when he thinks back to that Blair babes photocall of 1997, which showed him surrounded by his ‘army of women MPs’ (7).

The problem isn’t that they were women but that, like so much of New Labour, they were all style over substance: New Labour and its babes (or ‘backwenchers’) were fresh-faced and new and unlike the stuffy old gits who peopled the House in the past, but they had precious little by way of a political programme or vision and little genuine connection with the electorate. King is one of those middle-class types brought in to staff and lead the new political instrument that was New Labour in the mid-1990s: she was born in Sheffield to a Professor of Political Science and a schoolteacher, studied politics at York University, worked in the European Parliament and for Glenys Kinnock in 1994 and 1995, before being selected from a women-only shortlist to stand for Labour in Bethnal Green and Bow in 1997. Her dislocation from her own electorate was neatly summed up by a gaff at the end of last year, when she sent out a ‘Happy Eid’ card, to mark a Muslim festival, to all constituents with faintly Asian-sounding surnames – upsetting more than a few Hindus and Sikhs in the process.

King’s political career was forged in the backrooms of think-tanks and in offices at the European Parliament in Brussels, and, like many MPs today, she seems to see being a member of parliament as just another job like those. She recently said that if she loses to Galloway, it won’t bother her that much; she’ll just do ‘something else’. Last night she talked about maybe getting a ‘proper job’ after 5 May. She is the archetypal flimsy, flighty New Labour MP: looks good in a white trouser suit but is devoid of politics or passion.

It is precisely King’s New Labour credentials that attracted Galloway’s Respect to take her on in this year’s election campaign. Respect exists pretty much as a reaction against New Labour, a scream of rage by the old left against the monolith of Blairism, rather than being a properly independent (much less mass) movement. And who better to rant against than Oona King, a one-time full-on Blairite, whose support among Muslim voters in Bethnal Green and Bow is already faltering as a result of her support for the war in Iraq?

Indeed, Respect’s manifesto – which focuses on criticising New Labour over the war in Iraq, privatisation and civil liberties – is all but indistinguishable from the book and website So Now Who Do We Vote For? by John Harris. He and other disgruntled former Labour voters are encouraging tactical voting at the General Election in order to give Blair a bloody nose for selling out Old Labour principles and invading Iraq – and that is effectively what Respect is doing in its fight against King. (As it happens, I recently argued that the tactical voting lobby will use its ballots ‘as rotten eggs to throw at Labour ministers who have pissed them off’- now some Respect supporters literally throw eggs at a Labour minister who has pissed them off (8).) Where some frustrated Labour supporters aim to ‘clip the wings’ of the New Labour beast that dominates the political landscape, Galloway and others square up to it with boxing gloves on.

Respect’s campaign is a deeply off-putting mix of opportunism and conservatism, of old left slogans and new left fatalism. One of Respect’s main supporters is the Socialist Workers’ Party; leading SWP member Lindsey German is the Respect candidate for West Ham. The SWP has always gone with the flow of each current of protest or latest prejudice, all in the name of ‘building the movement’. In the early 1990s it latched on to the shortlived movement against Thatcher’s poll tax and by the end of the 1990s it had become almost indistinguishable from anti-capitalist groups (despite those groups’ rejection of traditional left-wing politics). Today the SWP does everything it can to tap into disgruntlement with Blair’s war in Iraq, and has ended up accommodating to reactionary Islamic groups that opposed the war.

Lindsey German recently said that women’s and gay rights should not be ‘shibboleths’ standing in the way of making links with new movements (meaning Islamic movements opposed to women’s and gay rights) (9). According to Observer columnist Nick Cohen, SWP members have been encouraged to protest against lap-dancing clubs such as Spearmint Rhino (10). Notably, Respect’s manifesto makes a commitment to defending civil liberties against government attacks, but that section doesn’t mention New Labour’s proposal to outlaw incitement to religious hatred, which is a blatant attack on free speech. That proposal is, of course, supported by a majority of Muslim groups. Such is the SWP and Galloway’s opportunism that they’re now in bed with backward religious organisations.

Worse, Respect is deeply conservative: it expresses today’s culture of limits and the idea that human endeavour should be reined in – to protect the environment, etc – perhaps more explicitly than any of the other parties. Its manifesto says ‘the effects of global warming and climate change are spiralling out of control’, and calls for ‘emergency measures to reduce the use of fossil fuels, alongside massively increased investment in sustainable energy – including solar, biological and wind and wave power’. And wind and water, it seems, would be the only option: Respect says ‘No to nuclear energy’ and ‘Close all nuclear plants’. And who’s to blame for our apparently degraded environment? ‘This unprecedented situation is created predominantly by human activity’, says Respect (11).

The party is also opposed to the commercial use of GM foods, having more scientific experiments on animals, and it wants all of us to use our cars less, if at all (12). This sums up how it is often the old left that is most anti-progress these days, seeing human activity as the problem rather than the solution. Not only is it assumed that we cannot solve the problems facing people and the planet, but that just attempting to do so – through more production, perhaps, or scientific endeavour, or looking for new and better ways to produce food – is likely to lead to further environmental collapse, increased poverty and lots more risks in general for mankind. A vote for Respect is a vote for the fatalistic idea that humans aren’t up to much.

This is the ‘great battle’ of Bethnal Green, then: a choice between a New Labour apparatchik and a self-loathing old left. Should we really be surprised if some Eastenders choose to chuck eggs instead?

Read on:

spiked-issue: Election 2005

(1) Battle of Bethnal Green, London Line, 14 April 2005

(2) Jewish MP pelted with eggs at war memorial, Daily Telegraph, 11 April 2005

(3) MP accuses Galloway backers of anti-semitism, Guardian, 12 April 2005

(4) Galloway faces death threats from Islamic extremists, Scotsman, 21 April 2005

(5) See Men have made politics a combative sport, by Sally Millard

(6) Women making history today, Christian Science Monitor, 27 June 2000

(7) We ask Blair: Can you turn women on?, Daily Mirror, 15 April 2005

(8) See What’s left to vote for?, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) Following Mosley’s East End footsteps, Nick Cohen, Observer, 17 April 2005

(10) Following Mosley’s East End footsteps, Nick Cohen, Observer, 17 April 2005

(11) See the Respect manifesto

(12) See the Respect manifesto

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Topics Politics


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