First published online by Helen Pidd.
“I want an appointment to see George Galloway,” announced the blonde, smartly dressed woman. “I want to talk to him about his comments on rape and consent,” she told Bilal, one of Galloway’s two case workers at his constituency office in Bradford town centre.
“Oh,” said Bilal, glancing over to see who had overheard, before offering her an appointment two weeks hence – when Galloway was due to return from a holiday campaigning for Hugo Chávez’s re-election in Venezuela and then from a speaking engagement in Kazakhstan.
“Just our luck,” sighed Ruqayyah Collector, Galloway’s other case worker, later. She insisted the Respect office had not been besieged by angry constituents wanting to take their MP to task since he described Julian Assange alleged behaviour as merely “bad sexual etiquette”. A Swedish woman had claimed that Assange had had sex with her when she was asleep following earlier consensual sex. Though Galloway subsequently clarified that “no always means no”, he refused to apologise for his remarks. But Collector conceded that there had been “consequences” to Galloway’s remarks: “We can’t deny that it hasn’t had any impact.” Later Galloway loyalists mused whether the woman had been sent by the Labour party to cause trouble, having learned the Guardian was in town.
The last time I saw 29-year-old Collector was in the early hours of 4 May, when she had just been elected as one of Respect’s five local councillors in Bradford. Looking shellshocked, she was linking arms with Salma Yaqoob, then Respect’s leader, who was trying to make sure Collector made it into the press pictures so that Respect didn’t look like an Asian boys club. I struggled to hear Collector’s quiet voice amid the jubilant shouts of the few dozen men jostling around her, but just about managed to hear her vow to fulfil her election promise to stand up for the most vulnerable members of society, particularly those worst affected by the austerity cuts.
Five months on, Yaqoob has resigned as leader in protest at Galloway’s refusal to apologise for his rape comments. And what Galloway bombastically described as the Bradford spring, when he overturned a chunky Labour majority to romp home with a 10,000 lead of his own in the March byelection in Bradford West, has turned into a decidedly murky autumn. A number of longstanding members of Respect’s national executive have followed Yaqoob out of the door, imperilling the party’s future and seemingly dashing any hopes that it could grow into a serious left-of-Labour outfit comparable with Germany’s Die Linke or the Front de Gauche in France.
Kate Hudson, the well-respected chair of CND, who had been due to contest the Manchester Central byelection in November, withdrew her candidacy. In Bradford, while Respect’s five councillors are largely thought to be doing their best in difficult circumstances, a number of the women who played a key role in Galloway’s win want nothing to do with the party, amid claims of misogyny and bullying.
Others object to the way he behaves with his new wife, Gayatri, who became the fourth Mrs Galloway two days after his byelection victory in a wedding kept secret from all but his closest allies: the couple’s intimacy at a recent event held by Bradford’s Muslim Women’s Council garnered complaints to the organisers, while others feel he deliberately kept his relationship a secret during the election campaign in a cynical attempt not to lose votes among his more conservative constituents. Most worrying, police are investigating claims that Respect loyalists have harassed rape victims with anonymous phone calls and menacing messages on Facebook and Twitter, after they challenged Galloway’s views on sex and consent.
Collector, Respect’s only woman councillor, finds herself in a tricky position. She represents the City ward, which contains the university.
Two weeks ago, the National Union of Students passed a resolution agreeing that no representative of the NUS would share a platform with Galloway, whom they described as a “rape apologist”. In response, Galloway announced he would sue the NUS for defamation (on Thursday, the NUS said it had not yet received a legal letter from Galloway or his lawyers). Not long ago, Collector was the first Muslim woman to sit on the NUS national executive committee in a full-time post.
The repercussions continue to be felt in Bradford. Last week, Bradford’s student union voted to try to stop Galloway coming on campus at the end of the month to deliver a lecture at the Peace Studies department. The talk has now been postponed while union officers canvas the views of students to decide whether he should be made permanently unwelcome at the university: a startling development just seven months after I spent an afternoon following Galloway around on the election trail and saw him mobbed like a rock star on campus.
But much more worrying for Respect is the fact that the party in Bradford is garnering a nasty reputation for itself, thanks to what has been referred to as “thuggish elements” in the party which reportedly contributed to Yaqoob’s resignation. Jill Smith, a community health worker with the NHS, is one of Galloway’s constituents. She is only willing to meet in secret and insists we do not use her real name or mention her age. She didn’t vote in the March byelection, having failed to fill in her registration form in time. But if she had, she’d probably have gone for Galloway, she says. “I’ve campaigned about Gaza, pro WikiLeaks, against Islamophobia – politically, we’re very similar,” she says. “I thought he would be a strong voice for Bradford. I’ve lived in the constituency for 10 years and worked there for six, and things need to change. It’s a tinderbox, racially, and there are massive inequalities, massive social deprivation. I was hopeful he was going to help vulnerable people.”
Instead, Smith believes, Galloway did the opposite, by “belittling rape victims”. She should know, having herself survived a rape attack. Disgusted by his statement, Smith decided to challenge her MP’s remarks and co-ordinate the Bradford About Consent campaign, starting with a demonstration. What happened next shocked her so much that she claims to have dropped two dress sizes from the resulting stress. When we talk, she has been signed off sick for five weeks, is chain smoking and has been prescribed sleeping tablets.
Eight days before the demonstration, Bradford About Consent set up a Facebook events page. Smith, along with other survivors and supporters, were horrified to see the page fill with hateful messages from people defending Galloway, threatening to “come down with our quad bikes and megaphones and drown you out”. Moderating the page became a “24/7 job”, she says. Supporters were accused of being stooges from the Labour party, “pretending” to be survivors of rape in order to blacken Galloway’s name. At least one woman who planned to attend received anonymous phone calls asking “if she was a rape victim”. On the day of the demo, four men turned up to support Galloway – or intimidate the protesters, depending on your view (the men took pictures of those present, which they later posted on Facebook).
Ten days after giving her name publicly as spokeswoman for the campaign, Smith’s car windscreen was smashed. Banners from the demo were on the back seat. Concerned that she may have been targeted by Galloway supporters as a result of the campaign, she called the police, who confirmed last week that they were investigating the incident as an alleged hate crime, as well as “a complaint relating to comments made on a social networking site”. Smith says officers have told her they are contacting Facebook and the IP addresses behind the profiles responsible for the worst abuse.
Last Tuesday, I managed to catch Galloway by telephone at the airport in Caracas, en route to Khazakstan’s capital, Astana, and asked him about the abuse, both on and offline. “This is all just chatter – and by people who are self-declared opponents of mine,” he said. There was no proof who was behind it, he insisted. “First of all, you’ve no way of knowing if anyone did smash their windscreen, [and] who did so. Anyone who smashes someone’s windscreen should be subject to the full rigour of the courts. But as I’ve never heard of this allegation before, and I’ve never seen it in print before, I’d treat it with a bit of scepticism.”
He insisted his comments had not caused a setback in Bradford. “I haven’t lost support in Bradford, no. The people who spoke to you, or the ones you are speaking to me about, never supported me in the first place,” he said.
While it is true that national membership of Respect continues to grow – having reached 2,000 now, compared with just 300 before the Bradford byelection, according to the party secretary Chris Chilvers – it is disingenuous for Galloway to claim he has not lost support in the constituency. Sarah Cartin, who stood as a Respect councillor in Bradford’s Tong ward in May, said Galloway’s victory, along with that of the five successful councillors, had created a real vibrancy in the city, as well as a desire to challenge the status quo. “These comments have inevitably damaged that work,” she says. “My belief was that Respect should have been part of the rally in solidarity with all those who have suffered rape and sexual violence.”
Like many party loyalists, she was hugely disappointed when Yaqoob stood down and is sceptical that Respect can regroup without her. “The only way the party can recover is to elect a strong and principled leader who can work to build an effective party, one who can build party structures, develop support, win elections and draw a clear distinction between the policy of the party and the words of its MP. Whether that’s what the party wants remains to be seen,” she said in an email.
Galloway voter Sabbiyah Purvez, an outspoken writer and campaigner who starred in the reality series Make Bradford British, wrote a blog post about the potentially dangerous repercussions of Galloway’s remarks. “I’m worried about the effect it will have on the young boys here, who revere him and to whom he has become a saviour and celebrity,” she wrote. “Now that Galloway has publicly made these ridiculous, outdated, misogynistic remarks, it will and can create a precedent. There will be some who will say, ‘Well, George knows his stuff. If he’s saying it, he’s got a point, it’s not rape.’” After talking out, she claimed she received a barrage of abuse “from leading Respect party members”.
One young party member, a woman who had campaigned hard for Galloway during the byelection, has lodged a formal complaint with Respect’s general secretary about “misogynistic” and “bullying” attitudes within the party in Bradford, as well as about Galloway’s dismissive behaviour towards her when she confronted him about his rape remarks. General secretary Chris Chilvers confirmed he had received a complaint, but that it was “low level”. Chilvers said the party was aware it needed to make women feel more welcome, which is why a women’s group was formed a few weeks ago, as well as a black members’ group.
Ratna Lachman, director of Just West Yorkshire, a civil liberties, human rights and social justice organisation, says Galloway needed to stop talking about his own popularity and start taking action. “It’s very easy to throw brickbats at the existing parties and say they are not doing enough. But if I were to look at what Galloway’s record has been, I can tell you he is someone who has travelled to Indonesia, someone who is setting up an enterprise like Red Molucca [a blog set up by Galloway and his new wife, published by his new media company Molucca Media]. I get photographs of him in all sorts of poses with his wife, I see him wanting to increase his Twitter following.
“I see someone who is in Venezuela, fighting the Chávez campaign … I see somebody doing these blogs on Assange. It’s very disappointing that I have seen all of this but I have not heard his voice in terms of the practicality of Bradford West. I have heard the criticism, I’ve heard the ‘I’m all alone in politics’ and all the rest of it. I think the constituents who voted for him were hoping he would be here, given the huge issues of deprivation and poverty.”
She hands over a sheet of statistics claiming Bradford West has the fastest-growing unemployment rate in the country, having suffered the greatest yearly decrease in employment among all Britain’s 650 constituencies, with 32% of children in the constituency (11,768) growing up in poverty.
When we talk, Galloway takes umbrage with the notion that he should perhaps be more visible in the city – even when I tell him that one of his Respect councillors, Alyas Karmani, had told me that “George needs to be more responsive to the situation in Bradford West – those are the people he has been elected by”. This, said Karmani, was the important issue, “not WikiLeaks”. It wasn’t a criticism, he insisted, but: “The more he is here, the more he is engaging on local issues, the better it is.”
“How could I be more visible?” Galloway bristles. “Is there a British politician outside of the government or the Labour frontbench more visible than me?”
He says he has achieved a lot in his first six months, claiming some credit for the “saving” of the Bradford Odeon, an art deco cinema that, until very recently, was due to be demolished and made into luxury flats (a spokesman for the longstanding Save the Odeon campaign points out that while Galloway did write “a few letters”, this victory is a local one, 10 years in the making). He was instrumental in organising two well-attended demos in Bradford: one about persecution of the Rohingya Muslims and another against drones. He is also proud that Michael Gove, the education secretary, is due to visit the city in a few weeks, after Galloway asked a question in parliament about “the dismal performance of the New Labour council that run the city’s schools”.
No doubt mindful of those who criticised his poor parlimentary attendance when he was MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, he has also gone out of his way to propose and sign early day motions (11 proposed, 198 supported so far this year, according to his office), and to submit parliamentary questions. An aide insists Galloway has not had many foreign trips since becoming an MP again – apart from his latest jaunts to Caracas and Kazakhstan, there were wedding ceremonies in the Netherlands and Indonesia, a trip to Tunis as a guest of the Arab National Conference and monthly trips to Beirut to film two programmes for al-Mayadeen, the new Arab TV station set up to compete with Al Jazeera.
Down the line from Caracas, Galloway justifies his globetrotting. “If I were just a local MP then I would be just in the locality. But I’m not. I’m in Venezuela for the Chávez election, I’m going to Astana for a CNN-sponsored Euro-Asian media conference. These things are important. I’m in parliament every day when it’s sitting. I cannot be in two places at one time … There are always balances to be struck between local, national and international activity and I try my best to strike that balance.”
With a general election expected in May 2015, he has two and a half years to prove his case.