SWP bites its lip

The Socialist Workers Party is deeply uneasy about George Galloway's antics in the Big brother house - but it was them who gave him carte blanche to be a free agent in the first place, says Peter Manson

So far George Galloway has been seen dressed as Dracula, pretending to be a purring, milk-licking cat, dancing the twist as a 60s-style rocker and lying under a large cardboard box - to name but a few of the indignities he has had to endure on Celebrity big brother.

He has also called page three girl Jodi Marsh "wicked" and a "trollop", and nominated Baywatch star Traci Bingham for eviction because of her "extreme vegetarianism" (she won't eat eggs or milk).

On the other hand, he has attempted to put some kind of radical politics before millions of mainly young viewers, while at the same time trying to portray himself as a caring, big-hearted leader. While other politicians may "talk the talk, they don't walk the walk" like himself, he confided to 'Big brother' in the 'diary room'. According to former 'TV personality' Michael Barrymore, however, "If George is a leader, he should try doing some washing up."

When the celebrity contestants were given the "task" of getting under their individual cardboard box and told that the one who remained there the longest would receive a "special prize", it was Galloway who organised them to come out simultaneously after a few minutes in order to "beat the system, comrades!" - that way ageing actress Rula Lenska was able, with their agreement, to claim the prize by staying under her box a few seconds longer.

Galloway explained this as a "lesson" in how common action can bring empowerment. Fair enough, I suppose - except for the fact that the whole Big brother set-up is designed to atomise and demean. Lenska's "special prize" turned out to be a pair of oversized underpants which she had to wear on top of her ordinary clothes at all times, and the guarantee that the person she nominated for eviction would be put to the viewers' vote.

If the housemates were really to act in solidarity with the collective, they would refuse to make any nominations and perhaps all walk out when one of them was evicted. But if they did that, there would be no show, and no appearance fee either, would there? (Some media sources are claiming that Galloway is to receive £150,000, in addition to the revenue raised for the Palestinian islamic charity, Interpal.)

So has Galloway succeeded in his aim of "[connecting] with the politically untouched, the millions of people "who are completely turned off by conventional approaches" (press statement, made public January 7)?

His media adviser, Ron McKay, has stated: "This was not meant to enhance a media profile; it was meant to show his anti-war profile." He told the Sunday Herald: "Respect was totally isolated, blacked-out and neutered by the mainstream media ... We realised we needed alternative ways to reach the public. Since 9/11, George has done almost 2,000 public meetings and travelled tens of thousands of miles. He gets big audiences but they usually agree with him. When he started doing those 'An audience with' evenings he got to reach people he didn't usually meet at public meetings. That was the lead-up to the thinking behind going into Big brother ('What on earth were you thinking, George?' Sunday Herald January 15).

McKay reports that, although people in his personal team expressed doubts about this "high-risk strategy", they were also "naive", in that they "didn't reckon on Channel 4 saying, 'You can't use this as a soapbox', and censoring his every political utterance ... It seems you can talk about animal rights and killing animals, but not the killing of human beings."

He added: "Two million people marched against the war in Britain and it was ignored. Any avenue to get their message across is now justifiable. This is not about personalities: it's about the message. His idea is to be applauded. If he has to do some stupid jape, then so what?"

In similar vein Anas Altikriti of the Muslim Association of Britain said: "I think George proved he is a man that connects with the common people and that's important. Being a cat wasn't something he just brought upon himself. It was a task he had to do and he acted diligently, otherwise he would have been seen as a hypocrite. You can't have it both ways" (The Guardian January 14).

It is correct to try to use "any avenue", but McKay is being disingenuous when he says, "This is not about personalities," and "This was not meant to enhance a media profile." Galloway himself, in his visit to the 'diary room', told 'Big brother' (together with millions of viewers, of course) that his intention in coming on the show was to demonstrate he was not a "monster" or an "extremist".

As we have pointed out, Galloway has no choice but to promote his own persona as a way of counterbalancing the influence of the Socialist Workers Party within Respect. Indeed, he would not be averse to 'doing a Livingstone' and attempting to re-enter the Labour Party, if he thought it the best way to further his own political ambitions (and if Labour would have him back, of course). Respect could easily be ditched if it ceased to be a suitable vehicle in Galloway's view.

He has stated that he only intends to represent Bethnal Green and Bow for one term (an assertion repeated by McKay in his interview with the Glasgow Herald) - after that he would like to see a Bengali candidate take over. Of course, things could change over the next few years, but one thing is sure: from Galloway's point of view it is necessary to continue to attract attention to himself and build up his personal profile.

This, of course, accounts for his cavalier attitude to the Respect party and his failure to consult the leadership about his decision to go on Big brother - John Rees and co were only told about it 24 hours in advance. McKay says that Galloway approached a previous celebrity contestant, Germaine Greer, months ago to ask for advice about being in the house - so much for Channel 4's requirement of 'confidentiality' and comrade Rees's lame attempt to excuse Galloway's irresponsibility on that basis.

No-one could fail to notice the SWP's deep unhappiness with the situation. According to their own internal bulletin, "the telephones in the office have not stopped ringing", with comrades objecting to Galloway's TV venture (Party Notes January). But the Rees leadership is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the SWP has a long history of dismissing Big brother as dehumanising trash. Hence Rees says, "lots of people" feel (unlike Anas Altikriti, it seems) "it's not an appropriate way for an MP to spend their time".

On the other hand, he has himself been responsible for marshalling the SWP so that its bloc safely votes down all manner of inconvenient 'shibboleths' in Respect - open borders, gay and women's rights, proletarian socialism, republicanism, secularism, etc. That opportunism has been justified by Rees in the name of 'reaching out to the mass of people' - and, of course, Big brother attracts an audience of around eight million.

Comrade Rees has also been the one who has emphasised the vital role of Respect's 'celebrities'. The likes of George Galloway, Yvonne Ridley and Salma Yaqoob have been  assiduously promoted. Why? As we noted a couple of years ago, "These paragons of middle class socialism rate with the bourgeois media". Minor celebrities they may be, but they are celebrities for all that.

As such, they and their quirky ways, aristocratic airs, hallowed prejudices, sudden whims and garbled politics have been allowed to set Respect's real agenda, because "they alone" are conceived of as the "bridge to a mass audience" (Weekly Worker July 29 2004). 

Rees, Martin Smith, Chris Bambery, Rob Hoveman, etc have been doing their best to put on a brave face, but there is no disguising their disquiet. The fact that Respect has sent out a warning to members not to speak to the press about the whole business (all queries should be referred to the national office) indicates the scale of the worries.

Take a look at the Respect website - where is the attempt to capitalise on Galloway's Big brother foray? Nowhere. All you will find is George's own statement and various uncomfortable efforts to ward off the media's absurd accusations about the 'neglect' of his constituents and non-attendance at 'vital' Commons votes.

At the time of writing, the home page leads with the US air strike against Pakistan, the imperialist fury at Iran and Respect's support for the March 18 anti-war demonstration. This is followed by a piece in opposition to Ken Livingstone's attack on the London Underground unions. You have to scroll some way down before you encounter the words 'Galloway' and 'Big brother'.

At the January 17 meeting of Hackney Respect, the SWP's Sean Doherty, who was Galloway's election agent, said he was very critical, indeed ashamed, of his general election candidate. We "have to be frank", he said: Galloway's action constituted a "serious error of judgement", even if it did come some way down "the A-Z of political crimes". For comrade Doherty there was nothing positive at all that could be said about his appearance on Big brother. SWPers who spoke from the floor comforted themselves with the thought that Respect is "not a one-man show" and everyone was very busy campaigning on the ground.

All this says something about the narrowness of the SWP's approach to politics. For all its talk of football teams, film nights, etc as a means to engage with masses of people, in truth it actually has a very restricted view of what represents 'legitimate' means.

The SWP has only itself to blame for its predicament. Not only has it up to now rejected all attempts, mainly by the CPGB, to introduce accountability and control over Respect's elected representatives. But it has also been trapped by the logic of the type of politics it has insisted Respect must espouse - ie, populism.

The SWP has understandably bitten its collective lip - at least in public - and steered clear of its previous damning criticisms of shows like Big brother, together with the "sad, vulnerable people" who appear on them and the viewers who "become part of the dehumanising process" just by watching (Socialist Worker August 26 2000). But no doubt the comrades would echo the views expressed by Nathaniel Mehr in the Morning Star.

Referring to the Respect MP, he writes: "... it is a real shame that this talented, principled and progressive man, who had been so resolute and unflinching in the face of much stronger, darker forces, has so meekly bowed to fashion for so little gain.

"...it is a far greater shame that Galloway is turning his socialism into a novelty which can be bartered and flaunted, trivialised and ultimately marginalised, in the company of glamour models and professional celebrities" (January 16).

We would dispute the "principled" and "progressive" nature of comrade Galloway's version of "socialism". But it is a strange mentality that makes "the company of glamour models and professional celebrities" a no-go area for working class politicians.

By implication the suggestion is that such company is demeaning and corrupting. Quite frankly that would be a recipe for boycotting not only the Big brother house but the House of Commons too! After all look at its members. The vast majority of them are toadying careerists, back-stabbing bastards, inveterate liars and money-grabbing cheats...or, put another way, professional celebrities.

Nonetheless, despite the bad company and the dangers of our representatives being "trivialised and ultimately marginalised", communists insist, as a matter of principle, on not boycotting parliament in so-called normal times.

Communist MPs go into the House of Commons not in order to play the parliamentary game. They go into the enemy camp not for the fame, not for the money, but as agitators. To do that effectively - and this is crucial - they must work under the strict discipline of the Communist Party.

So we have no truck with the claptrap about Galloway 'neglecting his constituents', nor the cynical petition being got up by the New Labour machine - dumbly echoed by some who still like to pass themselves off as leftwingers (see David Broder in Solidarity January 12). Galloway was elected mainly because of his stance on the Iraq war. Not because he promised to attend every parliamentary debate and be in the constituency every weekend campaigning around local issues.

Besides his political programme, of course, our criticism of Galloway going into the Big brother house is that he has played the celebrity game. Just as in the House of Commons he has played the parliamentary game. Why hasn't he painted anti-war, anti-sexist, anti-censorship slogans on every wall? Why doesn't he wear a series of political t-shirts? Why isn't he turning the tables and thoroughly subverting the whole Big brother freak show?

Then there is the money. This has been raised on the floor of the Commons by New Labour hacks. The Sunday Herald asked McKay the same question: "Shouldn't he pay back to the taxpayer the slice of his MP's salary that he's earned since going into the Big brother house?" Frankly, McKay gave the wrong reply: "He'll write a cheque to the taxpayer for whatever the percentage of his parliamentary income is. That's fine."

Galloway owes "the taxpayer" nothing. But what he ought to do is agree to work under the direction of his party, including when it comes to financial arrangements. That would mean keeping only the equivalent of an average skilled worker's wage from his MP's salary, with the balance going to Respect. The party should be able to decide what political engagements its representatives should undertake on its behalf and finance them accordingly.

Had Galloway consulted and gained the permission of the organisation about his appearance on Big brother, that would have enabled the leadership to express an opinion on what proportion of Galloway's fee would go to Respect (comrade Rees has said Respect will ask for some of it) and which charity should be nominated to receive a percentage of the income generated from premium phone line and text message votes.

As it stands, Interpal will benefit to the tune of up to £200,000. While no credence should be given to George W Bush's claim that Interpal is a "terrorist organisation" (it has twice been cleared of allegations of illegal activity by the charities commission), it says a lot about Galloway that he prefers to aid an obscurantist organisation rather than one that promotes the cause of working class independence.

There are signs that the SWP is starting to get the message about the need for accountability. At the Hackney meeting mentioned above, Dean Ryan said that he had "taken on board" the CPGB's Anne Mc Shane's comments that it had been a mistake to vote down our motion on this question at the 2004 Respect conference.

A non-SWPer said it was not right to say we should just move on and forget about Big brother - we should not let George get away with it if we do not want other Respect candidates to think they can do what they like.