Renowned left-winger George Galloway is running as an independent candidate for Manchester Gorton this election. As part of our series of interviews with local candidates, we sat down with him
I meet George Galloway in his campaign office just next to Levenshulme station, in a room filled to bursting with campaign banners on garden stakes featuring his beaming face.
Our meeting was initially postponed following the tragedy of the evening of Monday the 22nd in Manchester. He tells me he “went to the vigil in Albert Square, and we for 24 hours maintained a self-denying ordinance — then took the view that terrorism can’t be allowed to stop democracy, and so have in a more moderated way, begun campaigning again”, though without the bus, music or large public platforms.
The builders renovating what was formerly a kebab and curry shop that his campaign base has taken up one half of are asked for some quiet while we get our chance to speak with him. The unmistakable black hat is on and his piercing light blue eyes shine out from beneath it, and you can understand why his reputation for charisma and passion precedes him.
People should vote for him in Manchester Gorton, he says, because “after 47 years of Sir Gerald Kaufman, who was no ordinary MP… the people of the constituency should not settle for ordinary.
“I have a proven track record, not least in double harness with Gerald Kaufman, over many, many years”, he continues, “travelling the country and farther afield with him, raising the big issues that impact on all of our lives, and those are not just local, but they are local, they’re not just national, but they are national; but they are international.”
What Manchester Gorton needs, is a “big figure to stand up for them, to speak up for them, to defend them and to try and alter a situation here which is, frankly, dangerous.”
He is careful not to promise too much before the election — “politicians can’t offer anything in advance of an election. It’s better in this case to look at what someone has actually done.” I press him on what he can offer students, and he recalls defying a three-line whip, to oppose introducing tuition fees.
“The Chief Whip intercepted me at the door of the lobby and berated me for breaking the government’s line, and he said ‘It’s only £1,000’, that’s what he said. I said, ‘it’s the principle. Once you breach that principle that £1,000 will one day be £10,000’. And he laughed — how he laughed — and nobody’s laughing now.
“Manchester University, and other colleges and universities here are all in the same boat of high fees, high costs, no grants, high rents, high cost of living, and I want to do something about that” he says. “What I want to do is abolish tuition fees, starting this September, so if I’m elected… my vote will help to put a Labour government in to office, and the scrapping of tuition fees will be the first but not the only thing that needs to be done.”
Galloway has positioned himself as an alternative Labour candidate, despite standing against their chosen candidate, Afzal Khan, in the constituency. “This is a choice between two different types of Labour — the Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn Labour that I represent, and the Tom Watson, Tony Blair Labour that Afzal Khan represents”, he explains.
I ask if he’s concerned he risks damaging Labour’s chance of victory by standing in Gorton independently. “There’s only me or the Labour candidate can win this election. If you look at the simple arithmetic, Labour has 28,000 votes, and the nearest competitor is the Green Party with 4,000 votes.
“There’s no danger at all of splitting votes and letting The Conservatives in. The Conservatives, as far as I know, are not even really in this campaign, they haven’t delivered a leaflet or turned up at a hustings or anything else.”
He harshly criticises how Khan was selected by the Labour Party, saying that it was rigged against any Corbyn supporters. “If the Labour candidate had been chosen fairly, then I probably would not be standing, but the Labour candidate was chosen in a rigged selection, in an all-Asian Muslim shortlist, the first time that has ever happened”, he says.
“I strongly disapprove of that. It would be a very risky adventure in identity politics, even if it had been meant sincerely, but it was not meant sincerely. It was the product of Keith Vaz’s manoeuvrings, and the words ‘sincerely’ and ‘Keith Vaz’ shouldn’t appear in the same sentence.
“They couldn’t have an open shortlist, because the Corbyn supporter, Sam Wheeler, would have won it. They couldn’t have a woman-only shortlist, because the Corbyn-supporting councillor Julie Reed would have won it. So they came up with this wheeze”.
In the past, following Ken Livingstone’s suspension from Labour, Galloway called the Labour leader’s behaviour “shameless opportunism” and “utterly dishonest”. Having positioned himself as still standing up for Labour, I ask whether he would really work well alongside Corbyn as he says he would.
“I have been with Corbyn almost 40 years, and sat next to him in Parliament for almost 30 years. My last speech in Parliament, in the last Parliament… was a filibuster, and the three filibusters were me, Jeremy Corbyn, and John McDonnell.”
Galloway was a supporter of leaving the European Union. “Almost all of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s manifesto would have been illegal if we remained within the European Union — public ownership, nationalisation, state intervention in the economy and so on, are all illegal, deliberately so, in the articles of the European Union, that’s why it was set up, to stop that kind of Socialist politics.” He campaigned against it in 1975, he says, for the same reasons he opposed it in 2016.
I ask him if Corbyn is a credible candidate for Prime Minister. Before the attack on Monday which suspended campaigning, Corbyn’s campaign “was really picking up momentum, if you’ll forgive the pun”, he says. “He climbed from around 25 per cent to around 35 per cent in the course of the election campaign thus far.
“Theresa May was on the ropes, anyone who saw her interview with Andrew Neil on the BBC after the incredible fiasco of the social care issue, knows that Jeremy Corbyn was beginning to breathe down Theresa May’s neck.
“Jeremy Corbyn is very much a credible Prime Minister, and those ‘fake news’ outlets that seek to pretend otherwise, are just that, they’re fake news, in the service of the power, in the service of the Tories.”
When asked what could help Labour’s current struggles, he makes it very clear that Labour’s poll results are catching up quickly to the Conservatives’ — but is it enough? “Good question… Let’s put it this way, Labour started on 25, the last poll they were almost 35, with two weeks to go, so that shows Labour steadily rising in the polls, not falling.
“But insofar as there is a credibility gap which you’re identifying, it’s hardly surprising, given that hundreds of Labour MPs have spent the last 18 months stabbing Jeremy Corbyn in the back, and given that the entirety, virtually, of the mass media, has for the last 18 months — and including, in the case of the BBC, in defiance of the law — has continued to maintain an unremitting bias against him.
“It’s hardly surprising. The surprising thing is, despite all that, he’s going up and up in the polls.” He chooses to suspend his judgement on what can bring them eventual success “because it’s not yet clear what the impact of the events of this week has been.”
I turn finally to the issue of anti-Semitism. Galloway has publicly supported the University of Manchester’s BDS campaign, and concerns have been raised by some about anti-Semitism on campus and in the political Left. “If there is actual anti-Semitism on the campus at Manchester University, I’d first of all be a little bit surprised, but I’d be shocked and horrified too”, he says.
“Anti-Semitism is a vile strain of racism which murdered six million Jewish people in the Holocaust, so it’s not a small thing. If there is anti-Semitism it must be rooted out wherever it raises its ugly head… But the question of Israel has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, the question of Israel is about something else altogether.
“It’s about politics, it’s about ideology, it’s about apartheid, and that has nothing whatsoever to do with the religion of the people who are practicing that repression, any more than you can blame the killer of Jo Cox on white people or Christian people, or the mass murderer in Manchester Arena on Monday on Muslim people.
“I have been on the Left for half a century. I have never met anyone on the Left who was anti-Semitic. If you were anti-Semitic, then, ipso facto, you couldn’t be on the Left. Jewish people have played a leading role in the vanguard of the development of Left politics since the middle of the 19th century until now.”