Gorgeous gigging

An audience with George Galloway South Shields, Thursday June 23

400-strong audience gathered at the Customs House arts centre in South Shields to witness the first gig in George Galloway's tour of venues throughout the country - good practice for forthcoming appearances on the US lecture circuit. The first 45 minutes (geddit?) comprised what was essentially the same speech as Galloway gives at any other rally, followed by an hour and a half for questions from the floor. Galloway started off by explaining why he had chosen to start his national tour at the same venue as Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell had done before him. Apparently the answer to this question, which he claimed many people had asked him, was that South Shields was the only the constituency in the British Isles never to have elected a Conservative MP. It was "Labour land". Galloway was a "real Labour man" and Respect stood in the "true tradition of the Labour Party", whose spirit he wished to revive. Funny that, because the Customs House summer programme reveals that Galloway was, in fact, a last-minute replacement for the cancelled Audience with Chris Eubank show. But, hey, that's showbiz and the comrade certainly knows how to work an audience. To those who might suspect his tour to be a lucrative money-spinner taking advantage of his recently acquired celebrity status, Galloway admitted it was just that, but he pointed out that the paid gigs were part of a busy schedule of speaking engagements, most of them done at no charge, and the intention of events like this one was to raise funds for Respect, not for himself. If so, then Respect can look forward to a reasonable income from appearance fees should he attract similar attendances elsewhere. Sales of his book, however, would help pay for his children to get the education that the government's abolition of student grants had made so much more expensive. The fact that so many people had paid £12.50 per head to listen to a politician speak when they could have been watching Eastenders "gives the lie to those who say that people are apathetic about politics", he claimed. "I say they are apoplectic about the state of British politics." Cue enthusiastic applause. "Every country needs a Labour Party," Galloway argued, but Britain's had been "murdered by the New Labour clique who hijacked the party in 1994". Respect stood "in the true tradition of the Labour Party" and the election victory in Bethnal Green and Bow, together with promising results elsewhere, demonstrated that there was "still a market for true Labour values". None of the current crop of Labour MPs could have filled a theatre, as he had done at this gig. In the House of Commons, he joked, you could often "see a shiver looking for a spine to run up" - such was the pitiful condition of today's "pager politics". The comrade went through a familiar list of reasons for his opposition to the war in Iraq and the subsequent occupation of that country. Only four people had lost their jobs as a result of this disastrous policy: the chairman and director general of the BBC, the editor of the Daily Mirror (who had opposed the war) and, of course, himself as a Labour MP. After ridiculing other New Labour policies, including the introduction of identity cards and the labelling of three-year-old children as potential criminals, Galloway spoke about the forthcoming G8 summit in Gleneagles - a "gathering of the world's most dangerous killers". Due to European Union agricultural subsidies, he said, the average farm cow in Europe lived on an income double that enjoyed by three billion people in the third world. Pop stars like Bob Geldof and Bono believed that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were the "Lennon and McCartney of world development", but the truth was that the G8 leaders were "the cause of poverty, not the solution". He highlighted the £2 billion profits made by Tesco plc in the last financial year. This had been achieved by paying its workforce in Britain at minimum wage levels, paying producers at barely survivable rates (with the threat of no business at all if they dared to complain) and super-exploitation in 'third world' sweatshops. New Labour fully supported the capitalist economic system that permitted this. The government had even boasted of its so-called 'success' in maintaining the opt-out from EU attempts to introduce a 48-hour maximum working week. Despite these obscene profits, Tesco now paid less tax than they did under the Thatcher and Major governments, a state of affairs that Blair was proud of. For the Q and A part of the show Galloway returned to the stage smoking a Cuban cigar and made himself comfortable in an Ikea armchair to take questions from the floor. A high proportion of the questions were prefaced by sycophantic comments about his "mesmerising speech". One woman simply asked if he had even been told that he was "very sexy" (he responded by enquiring if she was married). The majority, as was to be expected, focused on the war, its consequences and his leadership of the campaign against the conflict. Galloway handled these well and repeatedly exposed the hypocrisies, lies and errors of those who had supported the invasion. Other questions included those relating to his greatest heroes (Fidel Castro and Spartacus); his assessment of the prospects for peace in Northern Ireland; the situation in Zimbabwe and the government's support for sanctions against the Mugabe regime; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the difference between Jewish identity and Zionist ideology. When asked whether he would still be in the Labour Party had he not been expelled from it, Galloway said that he now regretted not having left it about a year earlier. Much as he had loved the party, its history, traditions and iconography, Labour had been destroyed under the leadership of Blair - a man who had told Paddy Ashdown that he viewed the party's creation as a "historic mistake". Had he quit the party at that point, "Respect would have been a year older and we would have won seats in the European parliament elections". This was a startlingly arrogant (but quite possibly accurate) assessment of his personal importance to the success of the Respect project. For all the advantages of having a politician with such excellent communication skills, able to explain and win sympathy for leftwing ideas, the total dependence on Galloway is also Respect's greatest weakness. For all the political ideas he expounded, this show was ultimately about Galloway, the man, and the admiration he craved from people across the political spectrum. If we could not agree with all his political views, the comrade wanted the audience - including, he said, a number of prominent regional Tories - to respect him for his independence of thought as one of the few parliamentarians still prepared to say exactly what he thought about issues rather than slavishly following a party line. His appeal was, in many ways, a nostalgic one, harking back to a bygone era of independent-minded gentleman politicians - rather like the public perception of Martin Bell, the former MP for Tatton (Galloway wore a very light suit too). Presumably, though, the same 'independent spirit' will apply to his relationship with the wider membership of Respect - Galloway will never allow his actions to be subject to any form of collective discipline that conflicts with his own instincts on issues such as abortion, a worker's wage for elected representatives, migration and so on l Steve Cooke