Thomas Rees meets London Mayoral candidate, George Galloway in Golborne Road

The first thing one notices about George Galloway is his voice. For a man with a reputation for demagogy his voice is calm, modulated, even reassuring, with a slight Scottish burr. It’s rather surprising and persuasive.

Galloway was born and raised in Dundee in straitened circumstances. His father had left school when he was 14 to work in a factory. He neither smoked nor drank, indeed could not afford to, and left the house either to work or attend union meetings. He was, according to his son, intellectually rigorous and austere but scrupulously fair. When he was laid off he trained to become a teacher. Galloway remembers his childhood, despite the austerity both intellectual and physical, as “idyllic”.

Thomas Rees meets George Galloway in Golborne Road

Thomas Rees meets George Galloway in Golborne Road

George was given an encyclopaedia as a boy and was referred to it whenever he sought information from his father on any given subject. He read widely, though very few novels. One that sticks in his mind is Billy Bunter, a rather bizarre image. “Now and again I’m invited to talk at various public schools, Winchester, Eton, Harrow, etc, and when I go I always think of Billy Bunter. Of course I’d never be invited to a state school – they’d be far too frightened of offending political correctness. But the schools I get asked to talk to are interested in ideas, not dogma”.

London mayoral candidate, George Galloway in the Golborne Road W10

London mayoral candidate, George Galloway in the Golborne Road W10

In fact after this interview he was going to the Oxford Union to debate the wisdom or necessity of a military response to ISIS with two former army generals. I suggested he might have a good time. The prospect pleased him. “It’ll be like falling off a log”, he said with relish. He has a wry wit, part of a considerable armoury of charm.

His bid for the Mayoralty of London he views with his own realism. “I have a chance of beating Sadiq Khan (the Labour candidate). If I do I will probably collect all his votes, since almost none of his supporters will vote for Zac Goldsmith in a second round (of vote transfers). Then we will have it. I was 75 to 1 with the bookies, but I’m 18 to 1 with William Hill now. I think it’s a good bet”. In fact he’s 40 to 1. He professes to be a connoisseur of odds on political events and claims to be successful. “I’ve done well with my bets”. Who puts them on for him? Does he have an account? “My son-in-law.” Your bookies’ runner? He smiled and recalled the shady men on street corners in the Dundee of his childhood.

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Thomas Rees interviews George Galloway, Golborne Road, photograph by Alex Schneideman

Fundamentals of his campaign are the necessity of transparency in governance and London’s housing problems. In the first instance he intends to provide the entire staff of the Town Hall with credit cards which will immediately update all transactions on the Council’s behalf onto a publicly accessible website. Further, all contracts entered into by the Council with private contractors will also become equally accessible although that is likely to make the contractors circumspect to say the least. “That’ll keep them on their toes” he said. The technology is there, much the same as a public bank statement.

The adoption of cutting-edge technology he would also extend to the Oyster card by allowing holders to use it as a debit card. “You could use it to buy your suit at Top Shop or lunch at the Pie and Mash”. The juxtaposition of Top Shop and George Galloway might seem incongruous but, in fact, he’s a natty dresser, with black Italian loafer shoes with tassels on. Pie and mash? Well, he’s a man of the people. When sitting at the Golborne Deli with him – 50 yards away from his campaign headquarters’ front door onto the street where anyone can knock (Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith take note) – one might as well have been sitting with George Clooney so often was he hailed by strangers. He responded with warmth and it was easy to see it as genuine. It wasn’t glad-handing.

A passer by greets George Galloway on Golborne Road

A passer by greets George Galloway on Golborne Road, photograph by Alex Schneideman

Housing, as most sentient Londoners will know (that’s my word, not Galloway’s), is at a critical stage in the capital. There are 2,000,000 private tenants in London, a large proportion of them unwillingly so since they are at the whim of private landlords. There is no credible housing stock in the hands of councils, or even with Housing Associations who are being pressed by Government to sell what little they have. With the absence of any meaningful policy currently in circulation Galloway has radical ideas to transform housing in London. “There are 600,000 unoccupied properties in London for a start. I would compulsorily purchase them. I’d demand that all brownfield sites were developed. That’s a starter. Then I’d look at the Green Belt.” Where the money for this comes from is hard to tell. It was almost with an air of flamboyance that he identified ‘the budget’ as his treasure chest. What budget? He moved on.

“It is astonishing that banks established buy-to-let schemes that were given tax breaks. It’s morally repugnant. Did you know that London has now overtaken Monaco as the most expensive housing market in the world? Is that something to be proud of, or ashamed of?”

Another bee in Galloway’s bonnet is pollution in London. The plan here is to ban all trucks from London during the day. Clearly this would mean that delivery companies would hike prices for night work, which in the end consumers would pay for. He sidestepped that. “9,800 people died last year from pollution in London”, delivered not with melodrama but as information to be considered in any discussion of traffic. He has statistics readily to hand.

In the absence of any meaningful policy currently in circulation Galloway has radical ideas to transform housing in London. “There are 600,000 unoccupied properties in London for a start. I would compulsorily purchase them. I’d demand that all brownfield sites were developed. That’s a starter. Then I’d look at the Green Belt.” Where the money for this comes from is hard to tell. It was almost with an air of flamboyance that he identified ‘the budget’ as his treasure chest. What budget? He moved on.

“It is astonishing that banks established buy-to-let schemes that were given tax breaks. It’s morally repugnant. Did you know that London has now overtaken Monaco as the most expensive housing market in the world? Is that something to be proud of, or ashamed of?”

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View from interior of Golborne Deli, photograph by Alex Schneideman

This leads on to Uber taxis in London, which greatly exercise him. “Last year Transport for London approved licences for 100,000 new cab drivers in London. Who regulates them? Nobody. They can sleep in their cars, drive for 18 hours a day, some reegard front gardens as toilet facilities, it’s madness. This is not how a civilised city should be organising its transport.”

“Uber is owned by Google and a collection of hedge funds. Their business is profit. And it came as no surprise that a few weeks after Google came to a £130 million deal with George Osborne on their tax liability in the UK less than the £137 million they paid their CEO last year, to find pictures in the press of Osborne and his son at the Superbowl, guests of Google. I will make it my business to run Uber out of town.”

There is no question that Galloway is a charismatic man with a position that represents the arguments of a large proportion of Londoners, a great deal more than the elite and the reconstituted establishment, who number few but who wield great power. But there are disconcerting traits of hubris and flawed judgement in the decisions he makes about his own life.

His apparently misinterpreted (according to him) fawning to Sadaam Hussein in Iraq and his very disturbing advocation of the murderous Assad in Syria, suggests a man who is unsure about the presentation of a reasoned moral on the world stage, or at least unaware of the perception that his actions and statements engender. This is odd, since he seems to be a canny political operator as well as being a moral man with moral courage. When taken to task by Christopher Hitchens on US television for his support of Assad Galloway later alluded to Hitchens’s drinking habits. That’s weak, and certainly inconsequential. It made no difference to the quality of Hitchens’s points. It was also spiteful. On the other hand Hitchens, an old bruiser, was personally uncomplimentary about Galloway. It can be hard to separate the public from the private Galloway.

George Galloway talks to SMACK about his his plans the London Mayoral to elections in May 2016.

George Galloway talks to SMACK about his his plans the London Mayoral to elections in May 2016 photograph by Alex Schneideman

He debates ferociously, his premises being firmly grounded in his belief in liberty and his opposition to the tyranny of oppression, whether by dictators, the excesses of capitalism or ‘democratic’ political interests. So how did he manage, in the general public’s eyes, to find himself regarded as an apologist for Sadaam and Assad? He has argued that he meant to ally himself to the Iraqi and Syrian peoples, but that certainly isn’t how he came to be understood. Were these instances of carelessness, or misjudgement? As for his ill-starred and bewildering performance on Celebrity Big Brother one can only wonder in amazement, as an onlooker or in dismay as a supporter.

For many he is a conundrum, a man with interesting ideas that should be confronted and considered. Dangerous? No, perhaps only to himself, but, if he had his way, certainly to the status quo that currently exists between Whitehall and big business. It’s a long shot but maybe we’ll have a chance to see what the boy from Dundee will do to the great metropolis before long. Perhaps the only question worth asking is – does London need another maverick in City Hall?

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