Respect Leader George Galloway seems to support the current Russian military intervention in Syria, saying that Bashar al-Assad’s regime, “whatever its faults, whatever crimes it may have committed,” is an important bulwark against Islamic State (IS).
Speaking to Prospect as part of his campaign to become Mayor of London, Galloway compared the current siege of Aleppo by Assad’s forces and the Russian airforce to the Allies’ “crushing” of Nazi Berlin in 1945. “It had to be as it was. The same is true in Aleppo.”
Galloway also believes that his London mayoral opponent Sadiq Khan has shown insufficient loyalty to the Labour leadership, claiming that “if I’m the mayor, I’ll be standing shoulder to shoulder with Jeremy Corbyn.”
It seems like Galloway is never far from a political battle. At the 2015 general election, the 61-year-old lost his Bradford West seat to Labour by 11,000 votes, after having won the 2012 by-election by 10,000. His time in Bradford was marked by a number of dubious comments, including his dismissal of rape allegations against Julian Assange and his declared wish after Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014 to make the city an “Israel-free zone.” Undeterred by the controversy—in fact, he seems to revel in it—Galloway is now standing for Mayor of London.
Speaking by telephone, Galloway said only he had the stature to match London’s first two mayors, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson: “They were big figures. They were bigger than the party they represented, and they had the capacity to lead.” Galloway, a fan of Livingstone, believes Johnson blew his chance to lead the capital, “through indolence and preoccupation with his wider political ambitions.” As for his mayoral rivals, “Zac Goldsmith is Boris Johnson minus,” he said, “and Sadiq Khan is way short of Ken Livingstone.”
Galloway believes Khan is distancing himself from the Labour leadership. “If I’m the mayor, I’ll be standing shoulder to shoulder with Jeremy Corbyn. Unlike my Labour opponent who pronounces that he’ll stand up to Jeremy Corbyn, I’ll stand with him.” He cites Khan’s opposition to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s proposed levy on financial transactions—the so-called Robin Hood tax. “He stands with the Sherrifs of Nottingham,” he said, “I stand with Robin Hood and with John McDonnell.” If elected, he plans to appoint the American economics journalist Max Keiser as his “financial tsar.” Keiser is a presenter on the Kremlin-owned television channel RT (formerly Russia Today). Galloway also presents a programme on RT with his Dutch wife Putri Gayatri Pertiwi. You can watch him interviewing to Labour's current Director of Communications and Strategy Seamus Milne.
Transport is the mayor’s main area of responsibility. Galloway has a number of populist proposals: he would allow students to travel for free, “to help in some small way for the theft of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the punitive levels of student debt”; he would also make orbital bus journeys in zones five and six free for everyone. To help with pollution and to help cyclists, he would ban trucks and heavy vehicles from central London in daylight hours. He supports the 24-hour Underground and believes that he, unlike Johnson, can get the unions on side. He wants to reintroduce bus conductors on certain routes, because of “the levels of aggression against minority communities, particularly against women.”
Whatever the merit of such policies, I sense that bread and butter politics do not really excite Galloway. During his three years as MP for Bradford West, he voted 82 times out of a possible 733. (Galloway cheerfully admitted it was a similar figure when he was MP for Bethnal Green and Bow: “I don’t think most electors are fixated with the number of times people vote in pointless votes in Parliament,” he said.) What really stirs his powerful rhetoric is foreign policy. He opposed western intervention against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President, in 2013 and also the decision to extend UK airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) in Syria. “It’s not that I’m against intervention against IS,” he said, “I’m for more intervention against IS, overwhelming and crushing.”
Galloway believes Russia is leading the way. “I support the decision of the Russian government to come to the aid of the government in Syria because whatever faults it [the Syrian government] may have, whatever crimes it has committed, they are considerably fewer than the crimes committed by IS or would be committed by IS were they to come to power.” When I asked about the current humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, where Russian airstrikes are targeting non-IS rebels, Galloway said: “Well there was a humanitarian crisis in Berlin in 1945 but that didn’t mean that the pestilence of Nazism didn’t have to be crushed. It had to be as it was. The same is true in Aleppo.”
Some of Galloway’s foreign policy pronouncements have been equally provocative. In the wake of Israel’s attack on Gaza during 2014, he declared Bradford an "Israel-free zone.” I asked Galloway, if elected mayor, if he would declare London an Israel-free zone? “No,” he replied curtly. So why did he say that? “Because that’s what a very large number of people in Bradford feel. That there should be boycott, divestment and sanctions, and no normalisation, no recognition of a rogue state which is killing very significant numbers of the people under its military occupation. As a member of parliament, I had a responsibility for foreign affairs. It isn’t a power of the mayor’s.” So as mayor, he wouldn’t comment on foreign policy? “Undoubtedly I would. But I would not be calling for London to be an Israel-free zone.”
Galloway believes he has the solution to the radicalisation of young Muslims in London. “One has to be tough on terrorism and tough on the causes of terrorism,” he told me. “War and Islamophobic hatred and prejudice are the two main—not the only—multipliers of extremism.” He said he has been threatened by Islamist groups who oppose voting in elections. “I know the lingua franca, and I have had up close and personal encounters with the kind of people who are either on their way or who have already become fanatics.”
Galloway has gained vocal support among some Muslims who sympathise with his foreign policy views. Those Muslims who have stood against him have felt the sharp edge of his tongue. In the 2012 Bradford West by-election, he said of his Labour opponent Imran Hussain: “I’m a better Pakistani than he [Hussain] will ever be. God knows who’s a Muslim and who is not.” When I questioned Galloway about this quote, he replied: “I’m not sure what my agitation in Bradford in 2012 about Imran Hussain has to do with running for London Mayor.” In a tweet from 2014, Galloway described Sadiq Khan as “a rancid traitor to his faith and to any conceivable definition of Labour.”
Sadiq Khan MP is a rancid traitor to his faith and to any conceivable definition of Labour — George Galloway (@georgegalloway) July 24, 2014
Given Galloway’s aggressive campaigning style, I asked whether as London mayor, he would be able to interact with all of its diverse communities. He was confident he would: “I do, I do. I’ve lived in London for almost 35 years. I always have.”