What did Galloway and Miliband really discuss?

The Respect MP has threatened "to tell the whole truth" after Labour figures dismissed claims he could rejoin the party.

Ed Miliband's recent meeting with George Galloway in his Westminster office, revealed in the Mail on Sunday, has unsurprisingly caused consternation in Labour circles. Galloway, who was expelled from the party in 2003 for allegedly urging foreign forces to rise up against British troops (not, as is often mistakenly said, for his opposition to the war), is loathed by MPs and activists for defeating Labour in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and in Bradford West last year, and, more recently, for suggesting that Julian Assange had only been accused of "bad sexual etiquette". 

The line from the party is that the meeting was to discuss the recent vote on the constituency boundary changes, rather than any possibility of readmission. But one problem with this claim is that the vote in question was held on 29 January, while the meeting is said to have taken place a few weeks ago. Galloway is certainly hinting that there was more to the tête-à-tête than Labour suggests. After shadow international development secretary Ivan Lewis tweeted: "Re Galloway being allowed to join Labour,more chance of finding Lord Lucan riding Shergar! @Ed_Miliband abhors his values+divisive politics", Galloway replied: "better not tell lies about the meeting Ivan. Or I will have to tell the whole truth...". He later added: "oh......don't tempt me. Ed, rein these people in". 

Incidentally, while Galloway vehemently denies that he has any desire to return to Labour, it is worth recalling what former Respect leader Salma Yaqoob had to say about the subject last year. She told the Guardian:

This is the irony – he's always said to me, 'if you have an approach, just make sure that I can come back in'. Ironically, that has not been on the cards. I think it's a great sadness to him, understandably, that he was expelled

That the meeting lasted for nearly an hour and that Miliband asked Galloway why he left Labour ("I didn’t leave, I was thrown out," he replied") certainly suggests that his relationship with the party was discussed. 

George Galloway poses for a photograph in front of the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Liverpool protest was about finding a place for local support in a global game

Fans of other clubs should learn from Anfield's collective action.

One of the oldest songs associated with Liverpool Football Club is Poor Scouser Tommy, a characteristically emotional tale about a Liverpool fan whose last words as he lies dying on a WWII battlefield are an exhalation of pride in his football team.

In November 2014, at the start of a game against Stoke City, Liverpool fans unfurled a banner across the front of the Kop stand, daubed with the first line of that song: “Let me tell you a story of a poor boy”. But the poor boy wasn’t Tommy this time; it was any one of the fans holding the banner – a reference to escalating ticket prices at Anfield. The average matchday ticket in 1990 cost £4. Now a general admission ticket can cost as much as £59.

Last Saturday’s protest was more forthright. Liverpool had announced a new pricing structure from next season, which was to raise the price of the most expensive ticket to £77. Furious Liverpool fans said this represented a tipping point. So, in the 77th minute of Saturday’s match with Sunderland, an estimated 15,000 of the 44,000 fans present walked out. As they walked out, they chanted at the club’s owners: “You greedy bastards, enough is enough”.

The protest was triggered by the proposed price increase for next season, but the context stretches back over 20 years. In 1992, the top 22 clubs from the 92-club Football League broke away, establishing commercial independence. This enabled English football’s elite clubs to sign their own lucrative deal licensing television rights to Rupert Murdoch’s struggling satellite broadcaster, Sky.

The original TV deal gave the Premier League £191 million over five years. Last year, Sky and BT agreed to pay a combined total of £5.14 billion for just three more years of domestic coverage. The league is also televised in 212 territories worldwide, with a total audience of 4.7 billion. English football, not so long ago a pariah sport in polite society, is now a globalised mega-industry. Fanbases are enormous: Liverpool may only crowd 45,000 fans into its stadium on matchday, but it boasts nearly 600 million fans across the globe.

The matchgoing football fan has benefited from much of this boom. Higher revenues have meant that English teams have played host to many of the best players from all over the world. But the transformation of local institutions with geographic support into global commercial powerhouses with dizzying arrays of sponsorship partners (Manchester United has an ‘Official Global Noodle Partner’) has encouraged clubs to hike up prices for stadium admission as revenues have increased.

Many hoped that the scale of the most recent television deal would offer propitious circumstances for clubs to reduce prices for general admission to the stadium while only sacrificing a negligible portion of their overall revenues. Over a 13-month consultation period on the new ticket prices, supporter representatives put this case to Liverpool’s executives. They were ignored.

Ignored until Saturday, that is. Liverpool’s owners, a Boston-based consortium who have generally been popular on Merseyside after they won a legal battle to prize the club from its previous American owners, backed down last night in supplicatory language: they apologised for the “distress” caused by the new pricing plan, and extolled the “unique and sacred relationship between Liverpool Football Club and its supporters”.

The conflict in Liverpool between fans and club administrators has ended, at least for now, but the wail of discontent at Anfield last week was not just about prices. It was another symptom of the broader struggle to find a place for the local fan base in a globalised mega-industry.The lazy canard that football has become a business is only half-true. For the oligarchs and financiers who buy and sell top clubs, football is clearly business. But an ordinary business has free and rational consumers. Football fans are anything but rational. Once the romantic bond between fan and team has been forged, it does not vanish. If the prices rise too high, a Liverpool fan does not decide to support Everton instead.

Yet the success of the protest shows that fans retain some power. Football’s metamorphosis from a game to be played into a product to be sold is irreversible, but the fans are part of that product. When English football enthusiasts wake in the small hours in Melbourne to watch a match, part of the package on their screen is a stadium full of raucous supporters. And anyone who has ever met someone on another continent who has never travelled to the UK but is a diehard supporter of their team knows that fans in other countries see themselves as an extension of the local support, not its replacement.

English football fans should harness what power they have remaining and unite to secure a better deal for match goers. When Liverpool fans walked out on Saturday, too many supporters of other teams took it as an opportunity for partisan mockery. In football, collective action works not just on the pitch but off it too. Liverpool fans have realised that. Football fandom as a whole should take a leaf out of their book.