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Gorgeous or Grotesque?

What does the election of controversial anti-war MP George Galloway signify for London? Reactions on the street suggest divisive times ahead.

It has seen Communist MPs, played host to a youthful Stalin and Trotsky, was home to anarchists and suffragettes, gave birth to municipal socialism, and successfully resisted Oswald Moseley’s blackshirts in the 1930s. Now the East End welcomes its newest radical, in the shape of cigar-touting “Gorgeous” George Galloway.

A bitterly-contested campaign saw a massive 36 percent swing to the anti-war MP, overturning a 10,000 “safe” Labour majority in the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow. The former MP Oona King and Galloway traded insults throughout. Jewish King was pelted with eggs by young Bengalis and at one point Galloway was attacked by Muslim fanatics, claiming he was kufr (unbeliever).

There is little sign of this euphoria and excitement on a bright Sunday morning outside Whitechapel station. Just some street sweepers from Ghana, who grin and show a thumbs up when asked about their new MP. A few shredded, yellowing stickers on the bins around the Royal London Hospital, warning Muslims not to vote or risk becoming apostate, are all that hint of those recent bitter battles.

Walking down past Altab Ali park, commemorating the murder of a garment worker by white racists, groups of Bengali lads bask in the sun, kotching [chilling]. Jilu Miah, a 24-year-old youth worker, is clearly happy with the election: “Yeah man, we’re all excited, it was so good. So good to know as a community we took control. I was there from the beginning. We can make a difference. We’re showing Oona King we’re not having it. Even if George does nothing, at least Oona is out. And George has taken his shahaddah [the Islamic conversion ritual].”

‘AJ’, nearby, who says he was a Respect party worker, can’t contain his grin. “My mood is very upbeat. There’s a great sense of achievement and excitement. Everyone is very pleased that so much hard work paid off. We are fed up not being listened to. We are happy to get rid of Blair’s babe!”

Bohemian whites crowd Brick Lane during the Sunday market. Trestle tables line the outside of bars. In the buzz of the Hookah Lounge (where you can smoke a nargileh pipe for £5), David Russell, Jewish and director of a City PR firm, tells me:

“I voted for Labour and also campaigned for them round here. I got abuse as I was walking through the estates. A big gang of Bengali guys started dissing us, one of them squared up to me and said ‘what are you doing coming around here voting for Labour? Why should we waste a vote for that Jew Tony Blair when he’s killing all these Muslims?’ When I told them I was Jewish they spat at me. But a Jewish anti-war friend of mine voted for Respect, so I’m waiting to see what they’ll do.”

Walking back down Whitechapel Road, student Salman says: “I’m on strike from voting!” and laughs, adding: “I think he [Galloway] used the Muslim name to get power, innit. He used our name as a way to get in.”

In the Zaytun Grill on Mile End Road, just past the infamous Blind Beggar pub of Kray Twins fame, managing director Siraj Salekin believes the result was “interesting.”

“The community are very fed up about the war,” he says, wafting smoke from the grill. “I think overall it’s very good to have a change. On Friday it was really happy. But I have a bit of both feelings. There’s a gap now: maybe even I can go and stand! The way is open for a Bengali MP. People are really talking about changes.”

Next door in the White Hart, with its Sky Sports and all-white boozers, the barmaid says: “I’m south Londoner, but loads of people have been coming in, saying they’re absolutely gutted, really gutted, yeah.”

‘Terry’, sitting nearby, adds: “By and large white people voted for Oona King and the Bengalis for Galloway, or a few for the Greens. It was a shock at the time. What’s he going to do anyway? He’s going to be completely isolated in the House of Commons.”

In The Old Globe by Stepney Green station, barman Eddie can scarcely contain his contempt when asked about Galloway. “The geezer’s a t**pot. We don’t want to have anyone coming in here going to cause race riots. I don’t think I can find any white person who voted for him. All he does is go on about the war. The guy shouldn’t even stand here, he’s got f*** all to do with us. The geezer don’t live in the area, he knows nothing about the area. You watch: it’ll kick off now.”

Perhaps Katherine, 39, a filmmaker enjoying a drink in the trendy Broadway Market, sums up the newcomer’s opinion most clearly: “I wasn’t even aware of the local politics until recently. Galloway is a charming man in a nice suit driving a Mercedes.” She smiles. “I don’t like him.”

This story first appeared in Time Out magazine ©2005

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