Maverick George Galloway offends SWP sensibilities

George Galloway's decision to try his hand at 'reality' TV as a Big brother contestant has thrown Respect and the Socialist Workers Party into disarray, to put it mildly. Peter Manson reports

Putting two fingers up to the very notion of democracy and accountability, Galloway consulted no-one in Respect about his decision to take part, let alone ask the permission of the leadership. According to national secretary John Rees, Respect was informed just 24 hours beforehand that the organisation's most prominent leader and figurehead would be incommunicado for up to three weeks, "bereft of watch, phone, family and all contact with the outside world" (Galloway statement, made public January 7).

The Socialist Workers Party can hardly be said to approve of the Channel 4 programme. In fact the SWP's utter distaste for Big brother is well known. According to Socialist Worker, the show is full of "sad, vulnerable people" desperate to be on TV" (Socialist Worker August 26 2000). In the opinion of former central committee member Pat Stack, "Volunteers, wannabes and the downright sad enter these things" (Socialist Review July 2002).

In fact just sitting in front of your television while the programme is on could seriously damage your health: "Channel 4 is not just exploiting the contestants. It is debasing the viewers as well. By watching Big brother you too become part of the dehumanising process" (Socialist Worker August 26 2000).

The SWP's repugnance - often expressed in terms of feminist opposition to the programme's exploitation of women housemates - appears to dovetail with the outrage felt by some muslims at the goings-on in the Big brother house. Feelings were running so high in Tower Hamlets that the local Respect branch called an emergency members' meeting at only a few hours notice on Sunday January 8. Despite its hurried organisation some 40 people attended.

According to the report of the meeting emailed to the local membership, "a very mature, thoughtful and sensible discussion took place, in a spirit of fraternity. It was a meeting in the very best tradition of Tower Hamlets Respect." Nevertheless there was a stand-up row between councillor Oliur Rahman and a muslim elder. Comrade Rahman referred to Galloway as a "second father" and defended his decision to enter 'the house', while the elder, together with an SWP feminist, raged against it.

By the following day, things had calmed down though, with everybody determined to make the best of what the majority viewed as a bad job. At an "emergency press conference" called by the branch on January 9 (strangely, in view of the amount of copy generated by Galloway's appearance on the show, only the East London Advertiser, a local Bengali newspaper and the Weekly Worker sent a reporter), Glyn Robbins, joint chair of Tower Hamlets Respect, confessed that the "degree of shock has mellowed over the last few days and people have taken a far more measured approach to what has happened".

Comrade Robbins told the mass ranks of journalists: "We in the local organisation only found out at five o'clock on Thursday evening...It is a remarkable turn of events that an elected MP, particularly one of George's character, should choose to find himself in that position. Had we had an opportunity to discuss the decision, we might have advised against it." Nevertheless, the "overwhelming mood" was that the branch would be "supporting George in the next few weeks and beyond".

The same sentiments were expressed by comrade Rees in a statement to the SWP's national conference, held over the weekend of January 7-8: "We didn't agree with the idea, but by that stage [when Galloway deigned to inform him] the die was cast and the contract signed. But what matters is the stand George has taken against war and neoliberalism. That's why we continue to support him and Respect. We stick by our allies, even if we feel they have made a mistake" (Socialist Worker January 14).

Of course, publicly criticising those allies is not something the SWP is accustomed to doing, least of all when they are of the stature of George Galloway, who sits alongside Rees on Respect's national leadership. The normal way is for disagreements to be concealed and things to be smoothed over behind closed doors, as with Galloway's decision to veto the inclusion of gay rights in the 2005 general election manifesto.

But in this case what alternative did comrade Rees have? After what his comrades had written about Big brother in the past, it would have been virtually impossible to stand fully behind Galloway's decision - especially when it came as a bolt out of the blue.

Comrade Rees made a half-hearted attempt to excuse Galloway's cavalier attitude at the Tower Hamlets press conference: "The difficulty is that there is a confidentiality clause, which doesn't allow you to discuss it with anybody." (He added wistfully: "Maybe one person could have been told.") The journalist from the Bengali newspaper asked: "How many more shocks are there to come?" In response comrade Rees said: "Are there going to be more shocks? My experience of working with George is, yes, there are."

So the obvious question is, what does the SWP intend to do about it? Up to now it has stood four-square against any notion of accountability - opposing, for example, the CPGB's call to make Respect's elected representatives answerable to the membership on the grounds that Respect is a "coalition", not a party.

In light of this latest episode there will be a rapid rethink. In the words of the Tower Hamlets email to members, "We will discuss with [Galloway] strengthening the relationship between his office and the local organisation. We will also be considering our expectations of all people who seek to represent Tower Hamlets Respect."

Not before time, you might think. The Weekly Worker has been warning about the inevitable problems that will arise from the current lack of accountability - not only in relation to comrade Galloway, but in relation to potential careerists who will attempt to jump on the Respect bandwagon in places like London's East End.

Clearly Galloway should have informed the Respect leadership as soon as he was approached by Channel 4 - confidentiality clause or not. There should have been a collective decision as to whether it was a wise move to take part in the show. In the event that agreement to go ahead had been reached, Rees and co could have been ready to take full advantage of the publicity, not left with egg on their face.

In hindsight it seems clear that Galloway had been secretly planning his appearance on Big brother for some time. At last year's Respect annual conference, he actually mentioned the show in his final speech, delivered on November 20 (ironically in response to a CPGB comrade who had moved a motion on accountability). Such notions, he said, were part of "a politics of another era, another country. We are not there now: we are in a plural world. People today watch Big brother and I'm a celebrity: get me out of here. They are in organisations that are networking" - with the implication that they will not therefore accept the discipline of a party (Weekly Worker November 24 2005).

From Galloway's point of view as an individual maverick, it is quite understandable that people should be allowed to do their own thing (at least when it comes to those at the top: the rank and file is exhorted to work selflessly in the interests of Respect in compliance with the decisions and instructions handed down to them). Unlike the SWP, he is unable to mobilise and organise hundreds behind him. Galloway's only weapon to counterbalance the SWP's influence within Respect is his own persona. He views himself as Britain's version of Fidel Castro.

So Channel 4's confidentiality requirements were quite convenient for him (although it is rather unlikely that the 'celebrity' housemates are forbidden to inform their agents and managers, let alone family, that they will suddenly be disappearing unannounced and unable to meet their other commitments). Perhaps he knew that the SWP would try to stop him doing it or perhaps he thought it was none of their business.

Leaving aside the question of accountability, what are the other objections to Galloway's participation on the show? The most philistine is the claim that an MP's job is to sit every day in the Commons, attending every debate and every vote, only taking time off to attend constituency surgeries and personally deal with every individual complaint about leaking roofs, uncollected refuse and bureaucratic abuses.

Thus the Evening Standard complains that Galloway "already has one of the worst attendance records of any MP. Since the general election...Mr Galloway has turned up for only 15.5% of parliamentary votes, placing him 643rd out of 645 MPs" (January 9).

The Labour leaders of Tower Hamlets council, Michael Keith, added: "Local MPs should be representing the interests of the area in these crucial issues [he mentioned a debate on a couple of technical motions, due to be heard on January 12 in the Commons, relating to the proposed Crossrail link through Bethnal Green and Bow] and he is clearly not doing it."

Labour activists rushed to take advantage. They mounted a picket outside Galloway's constituency office and set up a website under the name of the "United Residents of Bethnal Green and Bow". Voters are urged to sign a petition which reads: "Dear George, please get back to the house that you were elected to attend. Your constituency has lots of problems, and the place is going down the pan since Oona left" (http://beta.cergis.com/george).

This is truly pathetic, not to say hypocritical. Oliur Rahman, speaking at the Tower Hamlets press conference, pointed out that Labour's Jim Fitzpatrick, the MP who called Galloway a "C-class politician" and was helping to coordinate the complaints about the neglect of his constituents, "was in Portugal last year, where he was sponsored by McDonalds to play football for two weeks". If a Blairite or Tory had appeared on Big brother, said comrade Rahman, it would have been "a fantastic thing - a politician trying to be in touch with normal people". Comrade Rees added: "It's like saying that when he's speaking in Birmingham or the US senate he's not representing his constituents, because he's not doing his surgery."

We communists to do not go along with the bourgeois notion of an MP representing his or her constituents, irrespective of class. Our idea of the role of an elected representative is quite different: working class MPs and councillors must be tribunes of the people, campaigning tirelessly for the cause of the working class everywhere. That means speaking and voting in parliament or the council chamber, but it also means addressing meetings throughout the country and internationally, not just dealing with local gripes. Of course, Galloway is no communist and does not see things quite that way - all the more reason to insist he abides by the discipline of the organisation he represents.

What about the notion that it is just not right for an MP to appear on such a show. The Times quoted a "local community worker" (read muslim New Labour supporter) who was on the anti-Galloway picket: "I spoke to a number of people at Friday prayers who voted for him who are very disappointed he's gone on TV with a page 3 model and a Baywatch woman. What sign is that giving to the muslim community? Children are tuning in" (January 9). Clearly it is wrong even to be in the same room as models and popular actresses.

John Rees himself appeared to give credence to this moralism in his address to SWP conference: "George Galloway has issued his own statement about appearing on Big brother. In it he says he did it to raise money for a Palestinian charity, which he will, and to reach out to an audience turned off by conventional politics. Nevertheless lots of people feel that it's not an appropriate way for an MP to spend their time. People in their workplaces and communities say that many Respect supporters don't think that this was a good idea" (my emphasis).

At the Tower Hamlets press conference he elaborated further: "You are going into an environment which is designed to degrade and demean the people in it." True, but does that necessarily mean working class politicians should shun such spectacles at all cost? As comrade Rees himself pointed out, parliament too can be a demeaning place: "We advised George to go into the House of Commons despite the degrading treatment he might get in there, because we thought it would be a platform for him to be able to make valuable political points. In the end we concluded last night that he was trying to do a similar thing by going into the Big brother house."

John is not exactly quick on the uptake. In fact Galloway's own statement read: "I'm doing it for the audience. The biggest audience I will ever have. Every night on prime-time television millions of viewers will tune in. Almost everyone in the country will see at least a part of at least one episode.

"I want to attempt to connect with the politically untouched, the millions of people - most of them young people - who are completely turned off by conventional approaches ... We need to use new and innovative methods to put across our arguments. I'm determined that there are no no-go areas for us and I believe Celebrity big brother will be hugely successful for our ideals. If I'm wrong at least many will eat in the Gaza Strip because I tried."

The last sentence refers to the islamic charity, Interpal, which Galloway has nominated to receive a proportion of the revenue from people voting to evict or 'save' housemates by premium phone line and text message. A pity he did not see fit to nominate an appropriate secular, working class cause rather than one which promotes religious obscurantism.

Nevertheless, the attempt to reach a new audience is a worthy one - even though in Galloway's case the attempt is one-sided. What is actually needed is militant working class organisation to which the new audience can be recruited: ie, a Communist Party. And the struggle for party must of necessity be conducted to start with at the top, at the theoretical level, amongst the left and its current organisations.

However, it is foolish to pose Galloway's method of agitation in opposition to more conventional approaches - he is correct to say there should in principle be no no-go areas. By contrast the Tower Hamlets SWP leadership of Respect takes the view that Galloway's attempt to reach out to a mass TV audience is a diversion from the real issues: "The overwhelming opinion [in Tower Hamlets Respect] was that we must not allow this unexpected development to distract us from the vital task of campaigning on the issues that really matter to the people of Tower Hamlets - like housing, the NHS, social justice and the war in Iraq."

If the appearance on Big brother had been properly planned and coordinated, surely it might have made all those campaigns far more effective rather than being viewed as a 'distraction' (what is it, by the way, that leads the SWP to believe that Big brother does not "really matter" to workers in Tower Hamlets?). But again this would have required a principled working class party adhering to communist discipline.

It is true that there are a number of obstacles in the way of using such programmes for political purposes. Firstly, as Galloway states, although he intended to "talk about racism, bigotry, poverty ... about war and peace, about Bush and Blair" while on the show, "the difficulties of C4's editing of 24 hours down to one hour per day (though E4 will have wall-to-wall coverage)" should not be underestimated.

In fact, in response to Galloway's statement, Channel 4 immediately announced that he would not be permitted to use the programme as a soap box for his views. As Zoe Williams noted in The Guardian, "Channel 4 cut a scene where several housemates were agreeing with him about the Iraq war." She added that "edited highlights have yet to show him saying anything about politics. And in E4's round-the-clock version the MP is repeatedly bleeped" (January 10).

Comrade Rees says he has complained to C4 about this censorship, which includes "playing bird music over the political things he's raising" during the 24-hour broadcasts and the fact that "they cut out his piece in which all contestants explained what had made them famous".

It is correct to kick up a fuss about this heavy-handed censorship, even though it is not quite true that every instance of Galloway saying something political has been cut. He himself had noted in his statement: "Some of it will get through" - and it has. Although that should not stop us protesting against Channel 4's abuse of its alleged 'impartiality'.

Galloway also stated: "Sure, there may be an indignity to be suffered along the way. But it will be worth it. If I'm voted out early, I'll be back on the road again. If I go a long way, I'll have reached a lot of people."

In fact it is more than possible that he will be "voted out early", since he was one of three contestants nominated by the other housemates for the first eviction, to be announced on January 15. He has not gone down well with the younger contestants, who see him as a dull politician acting as a father figure and pretending to be hip.

Samuel Preston, lead singer of the Ordinary Boys, was featured telling others in the house that it was all too obvious: people would see through Galloway's attempt to further his political agenda and would vote him out - he was, after all, a politician, not a proper 'celebrity'.

If indeed comrade Galloway is the first casualty, then he will emerge on Sunday to face the controversy his appearance has aroused within Respect. The SWP, despite Rees's attempts to put on a brave face and see the positive side, views the whole episode as a major setback. In the words of the statement to Tower Hamlets Respect members, "... it would be foolish to pretend that the issue will not cause us some damage - it remains to be seen how much."

The comrades comfort themselves that "by comparison to the betrayals of other politicians, George's decision is trivial". But the tone of this does not augur well for the future relationship between George Galloway and the SWP.