George Galloway, the Respect candidate for Bethnal Green & Bow, went head to head with his Labour opponent Oona King in a heated debate held in the east London constituency on Wednesday of last week.
The event was organised by The East London Communities Organisation (Telco), a federation of local faith groups, trade union branches and student organisations.
Some 400 members of Telco organisations attended the meeting, which was not open to the public. Galloway, King, and the Tory and Liberal Democrat candidates were each asked to answer a series of prepared questions.
The event was preceded by a media scare about violence during the campaign. Both George Galloway and Oona King pledged to work together to ensure that the election campaign proceeded peacefully and with dignity.
The Telco meeting was highly polarised, with roughly equal contingents of Respect and Labour supporters present. Both candidates were cheered by their supporters and booed by their opponents.
As the debate progressed, clear differences between the candidates emerged. On crucial questions over the privatisation of council housing and civil rights for Muslims, George Galloway’s views proved to be in tune with those of local people, while Oona King faltered.
At the end of the debate each candidate was asked to give a two minute election pitch.
George received a rapturous reception for proudly stating that he was standing in the tradition of Keir Hardie, the Match Girls and Phil Piratin, the Communist hero of the Jewish East End who was elected MP in 1945.
Respect supporters handed out badges and leaflets in abundance afterwards, while Labour’s activists were noticably lacking in enthusiasm.
Highlights of the debate
All four candidates were asked whether they would ensure that council tenants would not be treated unfairly or starved of resources if they voted against stock transfer.
George Galloway: I have many profound political differences with the MP for Bethnal Green & Bow, but I respect her ability and her integrity.
I cannot say the same about Tower Hamlets council. Respect believes that this council is corrupt, incompetent and insensitive. That’s nowhere more obvious than in the way it has treated the council tenants.
Every piece of land that becomes available gets given away for private sector development for the richest people working in the City.
The bullying of those who oppose the privatisation of council houses has to stop. The bribing and blackmailing of people to accept privatisation has to stop.
We need to start building council houses. There’s a £13 million surplus in Tower Hamlets’ housing revenue account. There’s an £18.7 million surplus in the budget for major repairs.
The £20 million of “right to buy” receipts available this year should be spent on building council houses. No house should be sold in future. Some £6 million was spent by Tower Hamlets promoting stock transfer.
In all of Britain, council housing nationally produces £2,000 million of surplus every year.
We say spend it on building new council houses—the only form of tenure that’s democratically controlled and where you can sack your landlord every time there’s an election for the council.
Oona King: Regarding stock transfer, I think we’ve got to recognise that during 18 years of Conservative government, the money paid for housing was cut.
Since this Labour government has been in power, we’ve increased the direct money from government for social housing by 100 percent.
It’s good, but it’s not good enough. My priority is to get families out of overcrowded housing. It’s the end that I’m looking for, which is decent, good, new, affordable housing.
I will certainly ensure that those tenants who vote against stock transfer will get that increase in money.
But those that want more, those that want to see a huge increase and are willing to vote for stock transfer, I applaud them for giving their children a life without the misery of poor quality housing.
Co-chair of the meeting Jean Geldart, a prominent local trade unionist, asked Oona King, “If tenants of Tower Hamlets vote no, will you lobby the government to get the council allowed to put in the same level of investment that is being promised under the stock transfer?”
Oona King: I will definitely work to ensure that council tenants that vote to stay with the council get money. The Boundary Estate voted against stock transfer — they have got money coming from the government via this council.
What I’m saying is that I would encourage people to look at how they can massively increase money from outside the money that the government has available.
The candidates were then asked what they would do to protect local Muslims from harassment by anti-terrorism laws and police stop and search techniques.
Oona King: I did not agree with the anti-terrorism bill when it was first introduced, I do not agree with it now, and I will never think that it is acceptable to have detention without trial or for politicians to incarcerate rather than judges.
In terms of stop and search, we need to work closely with the police and I’ve spoken to the borough commander today.
Co-chair Harun Khan from East London Mosque asked Oona King to respond to home office minister Hazel Blears’ recent comments that Muslims should expect to be stopped and searched.
Oona King: Of course no Muslim person should expect to be stopped and searched. The proportion of Asian people stopped and searched actually fell during 2003-4.
But in Tower Hamlets we have a specific issue, we need to deal with it, and that’s why I’ve arranged the borough commander to do more work on this issue.
George Galloway: For all the time I’ve been driving late at night I used to always make a little bet with myself. If I saw a car being pulled over by the police I used to wager to myself that the driver would almost certainly be black — and almost certainly he was.
Now when I see the police stopping and searching people, I’m pretty sure the person they’re stopping and searching in Tower Hamlets is a Muslim. There has been a 300 percent increase in one year of stops and searches of Muslim youth.
I voted against all the so called “anti-terrorism” laws. I voted against identity cards.
If you make war against Muslims abroad, you’re going to end up making war against Muslims at home.
Finally the candidates were each asked to summarise why Bethnal Green & Bow voters should vote for them on 5 May.
George Galloway: I’m standing here in the traditions of the labour movement which was founded on these very streets more than 100 years ago.
I’m standing here in the traditions of Keir Hardie, the very first independent voice for working people in this country, in east London, in 1892.
I’m standing in the tradition of the Match Girls who struck against Bryant & May in 1888.
I’m standing in the tradition of Phil Piratin, whose flag was red, and who was elected here in 1945 alongside a real Labour man, Clement Atlee, and alongside an alliance that we have tried to build again.
An alliance of progressive people, of poor people, of immigrant people, of pensioners and students and those who prefer peace to war.
That’s the alliance we built in the Stop the War movement. We’re building it in Respect, and I hope we’ll have your support on 5 May.
Connecting Respect with people
About 50 local residents turned up to a “meet the candidate” evening with George Galloway in a church hall on Approach Road, Bethnal Green, last week.
Respect is the only party in east London holding such open meetings. “The audience came from just a few streets and, like this neighbourhood, was mainly white,” says Glyn Robbins, chair of Tower Hamlets Respect.
Several people who were considering voting for Galloway left convinced to do so.
Galloway responded to one question about what to do about teenagers hanging around by pointing out the lack of youth facilities.
There were nods of approval as he asked people to remember what they were like when they were younger and criticised the government for demonising the young.