Tracking Britain’s Most Controversial Politician

Labor candidate Oona King campaigns at Bethnal Green tube station

LONDON—On Tuesday, the Sun’s front page showed an artist’s rendering of the three party leaders as garden statues under the headline, “IS THIS DULLEST ELECTION EVER … YES OR GNOME?” The pun was strained, but the caricatures—Labor’s Tony Blair flashing a toothy grin; Conservative leader Michael Howard, whose family roots are in Transylvania, displaying vampire fangs and waving a “Keep Out” sign; and a dour Charles Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats, rumored to be a bit of a tippler, sitting on the sidelines knocking back a pint—were spot-on. Inside, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, which is Britain’s biggest-selling paper, pledged to use the gnomes—dubbed Smiley, Smoothie, and Boozy—to “liven up” the campaign.

Unlike the Sun, I don’t find the British election campaign dull, but that’s because I can barely find it at all. Sure, the papers are full of election analysis, and the TV news is dominated by campaign photo-ops and sound bites from the parties’ daily press conferences, but in my first day and a half in London, I didn’t see a hint of election paraphernalia on the city’s streets—no campaign billboards, no window signs, no vote-seeking candidates, not a single person advertising party affiliation.

Then I went to Bethnal Green in East London, where I finally realized that it’s a Brigadoon election: visible for just a few minutes a day in a few special places whose existence is known only to a few initiates.

You’ve probably read about Bethnal Green & Bow parliamentary district in the last few weeks, because in a general election where the only outcome that’s uncertain is the size of the Labor Party majority, it’s a humdinger of a contest. (Click here for a brief primer on the British parliamentary system.)

Although Bethnal Green is the poorest borough in London, it has beautiful parks

The war in Iraq may or may not be the No. 1 issue in the general election campaign as a whole, but it will certainly be the deciding factor in Bethnal Green & Bow. Situated in London’s poorest borough, with high unemployment and many residents in public housing, Bethnal Green & Bow has until this election been a safe Labor seat. It’s traditionally a home to new immigrants, and today Muslims, mostly with roots in Bangladesh, now make up 40 percent of the population, though the area’s street markets and the famous restaurants of Brick Lane are attracting young scenesters. The two-term sitting MP, Oona King, who is black and Jewish, is one of the New Labor faithful who supported Blair’s position on the war. Now George Galloway, a Roman Catholic Scotsman, has parachuted into the East End constituency to hog the international media spotlight while he contests the seat for his Respect Party on an anti-war agenda. There are five other candidates in the race, including two local Muslims representing the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, but they’re getting no attention.

If Oona King is the face of New Labor, Galloway unapologetically sells himself as the voice of “real Labor.” Mustachioed and suspiciously well-dressed for a hard-line leftie, Galloway had a reputation for foreign travel and poor local representation as a Labor MP from Glasgow since 1987. He twice visited Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and in 2004 he won a libel lawsuit against the Daily Telegraph after it claimed, based on documents the paper failed to authenticate, that Galloway had received hundreds of thousands of pounds from the U.N. oil-for-food program. In 2003, Galloway was kicked out of the Labor Party because of his brutal criticism of Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. He put together a new anti-war party and came down to Bethnal Green—after all, a grandstander needs an audience, and East London is so much more convenient for the foreign press.

When I showed up at Bethnal Green & Bow Labor Party headquarters on Monday, I was disappointed to learn that I wouldn’t be allowed to speak to King. (I was not altogether surprised; I heard a Canadian journalist tell a BBC World Service interviewer that she’d found it more difficult to get face-time with King than with candidates in the recent Zimbabwean elections.) I could understand why King wouldn’t waste valuable time with foreign journalists, but I was shocked to learn that she had no public events planned in the 10 days before the election. Andrew Hobson, King’s distracted press officer, explained that it was all door-to-door campaigning from here until May 5—connecting one-to-one with voters so she could remind them of her “record of delivery” to the constituency. As far as the King camp is concerned, Iraq is one issue among many, and the Labor campaign’s most effective leaflet contrasts King’s parliamentary record—bringing millions of pounds to the area, helping more than 20,000 local people, making “almost 100 speeches in Parliament” and asking ministers more than 1,000 questions on constituents’ behalf—with Galloway’s dismal performance: Over the last 12 months, he has never spoken in the House of Commons, has never asked a parliamentary question, and rarely voted.

King’s campaign is clearly worried about the way the election’s going—Hobson sketched out a scenario where King and Galloway split the left, allowing Shahagir Bakth Faruk, the Conservative candidate who came a very distant second in the 2001 election, to win. But really, Galloway is the only threat.

Much as it pains me to say anything positive about Galloway, he’s the only candidate organizing public events (including a bus tour of landmarks in East End radical history—he’s not just a politician, he’s also a tour guide!), showing up at hustings, and acting out the theater of retail politics. In a campaign where the rest of the candidates are virtually invisible, he’s as omnipresent as spit.

On Tuesday night, Stop the War organized a hustings in a community center just off Bethnal Green High Street. (As it happens, I worked in the building many years ago, back when the local council felt that subsidizing a radical feminist newspaper was a good use of its taxpayers’ money.) Judging from the speed with which the copies of Socialist Worker were offered for sale after the event, at least half of the 150 people in the audience were affiliated with the Socialist Workers Party/Respect. About a third were East Asian, some of whom may also have been journalists or Trotskyites. For most of the evening it was a desultory affair, remarkable only when Celia Pugh of the Communist League, who is contesting the Bethnal Green & Bow seat as an independent, managed to make the far-left rhetoric of the rest of the speakers seem reasonable by comparison—even the Trots gasped as she called for peasants to arm themselves with nuclear weapons to defend themselves against the imperialist powers.

Gorgeous George finally appeared 50 minutes into the proceedings. Since King and his other chief rivals didn’t show up, Galloway had a clear field of attack. “Most people know that this is either going to be won by Oona King or me. … [A win for me] would be a victory for the anti-war movement. Oona King would be a defeat for the anti-war movement. … Tony Blair’s grin would be that much wider.”

By chance, I ran into Oona King as I came out of Bethnal Green tube station, where she was handing out campaign literature to commuters. The leaflet contained a “personal message” in which she tried to explain her “actions”—by which, I presume, she means her voting record—on Iraq. Compared with Galloway’s robust language, it’s hardly stirring stuff, an apology hidden in an explanation, typified by the line: “First of all, let me say I’m not pro-war, I’m against genocide.” Phew! She adds that “voting to go to war with Bush sickened me.”

I’m aware that there may well be security reasons for King’s stealth schedule—when, by a wild coincidence, King arrived at a smart Marylebone brunch place just as I was leaving Sunday, there was a beefy minder posted at the restaurant’s door; she has been threatened and struck by eggs and other objects during the campaign—but regarding the Iraq intervention, she herself seems unconvinced that her vote was the right thing to do. Politics is about persuasion, and King seems unwilling or unable to persuade anyone that she acted correctly on the war. Perhaps that’s why she’s making herself so scarce.