Spring sunshine washes over Ladbroke Grove in west London, as the working day bustles into life. Grocers rearrange their fruit stalls on the pavement. Baristas scramble to provide for the mid-morning coffee rush. Parking her pram by the roadside, a mother scoops her screaming baby up into her arms.
A figure in black weaves his way up the high street. It’s George Galloway, his piercing blue-eyed gaze and signature black fedora firmly in place. He wears a black blazer, black shirt, black jeans, a black waistcoat with golden buttons and black loafers, complete with black tassels. It’s only his catlike grin that stops him looking funereal.
Galloway, 61, lives in this part of London – Notting Hill’s mildly rougher and readier neighbour – with his wife Gayatri and their 20-month-old son. He has four children in total and has been married three times before.
We sit outdoors on a café bench covered in paisley print cushions. The campaign office for his London mayoral campaign is a few doors down.
Galloway has been elected to the Commons six times, both as a Labour candidate and as leader of his party, Respect, after being expelled from Labour in 2003 for his incendiary opposition to the Iraq war. Most notably, he snatched Bethnal Green & Bow from New Labour’s Oona King in 2005, which he held until 2010. He thundered back into parliament two years later after winning the Bradford West by-election, a seat he lost to Labour last May.
He is lauded by his supporters as a charismatic, straight-talking socialist who stands up for voiceless minorities, and accused by his critics of being a cynic with antisemitic associations who mines the Muslim vote and cosies up to dodgy dictators. Either way, he says his reputation as a big personality is a reason for Londoners to vote for him in May.
“I think London needs a leader,” he says, sipping his black coffee. “I don’t think that either of the mainstream party candidates are leaders. We’ve only had two mayors – [Ken] Livingstone and [Boris] Johnson. Whatever you thought of either of them, they were both slightly out of the ordinary figures.”
Throughout the interview, a stream of people – male and female, young and old, white and Asian – constantly come up to speak to him and shake his hand, and he responds to many with a cheery “salaam alaikum”. His past electoral success owes much to Muslim voters, and today Galloway is disheartened by the Islamophobia he sees on the rise in London. As mayor, he would like to counter this by increasing staff presence on public transport, and introducing voluntary all-women carriages.
“On buses and on Tubes, hardly a week goes by without a new video appearing, effectively a kind of psychological terrorism, being visited on usually a woman, usually a Muslim woman,” he laments.
Galloway recently made headlines blaming the Brussels terrorist attacks on “those who rule us”, and caused similar controversy when he argued on the day of the 7/7 bombings that Londoners were “paying the price” for George Bush and Tony Blair’s foreign policy decisions.
He says he would give the same analysis if London were to be attacked again. “If you blow up the world, some of the debris is going to fall down onto your own head. And that’s what our leaders have done, and they’re still doing,” he says. “There seems to be no limit to their stupidity. Don’t imagine we’re run by James Bonds. We really are not. We’re run by Johnny English, or Austin Powers. We’re run by fools. By clowns.”
But he does emphasise that “the primary responsibility would be that of the murderers who did it”, and – uncharacteristically – suggests that some of the problem lies in Islam itself:
“There is something else, and this is more painful for Muslims to hear,” he says, leaning in closer. “There is something present in the Muslim Ummah – people – there is something present. There is a germ of extremism and sectarianism that affects a minority of Muslims, but not a tiny minority.
“If you put it in a worldwide context, it affects millions. If you put it in Britain, it definitely affects thousands. Not many thousands, but thousands – not hundreds – of extremists, who carry within them sectarian and fanatic interpretation of Islam, which is deeply, deeply damaging to Islam, to themselves, and of course to the innocent people who they harm.”
Islamophobia is one of the reasons why he doesn’t fancy the Labour mayoral candidate and Tooting MP Sadiq Khan’s chances. “It was always a big ask for a Pakistani called Khan to be elected,” he says. “Because of the terrible levels of Islamophobia that exist, and not just by people who are Conservatives or on the right . . . Even if he had been Barack Obama, which he isn’t. He’s a very poor speaker, he has very little presence. And he’s completely unprincipled. He is Mr Flipflop.”
Galloway feels that Khan has betrayed Muslim voters by deciding to oppose boycotts of Israel. “In pursuit of people who are never going to vote for him, he has alienated significant strands of people who might otherwise have voted for him,” he says. “And the love affair with Israel is inexplicable. Supporters of Israel are not going to vote for a man called Sadiq Khan. I’m sorry, they’re not.”
He adds: “[The Tory candidate Zac] Goldsmith is actually a more principled person than Khan is. And if he wasn’t a Tory, one could say he might grow into the job.”
Galloway predicts that Khan will either lose or win “very, very narrowly”. But he is invested in a Labour victory. Although he is slipping down in the polls (according to YouGov, he was on 2 per cent of the vote in January, and now he is down to 1 per cent), he still has his eyes on a future electoral office. “If he [Khan] wins, I’ll be a candidate in the Tooting parliamentary by-election swiftly thereafter,” he grins. One of the lessons he has learned from his many electoral attempts is that, “by-elections are easier to win than general elections! Note, Tooting!”
Last December, Galloway hinted that he would reapply for Labour party membership. This angered Labour MPs, who reportedly put pressure on Jeremy Corbyn at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party not to allow Galloway to return. The Brent Central MP Dawn Butler warned there would be an “almighty riot” if he were readmitted.
But Galloway tells me he won’t try to re-join yet, because “there is a complete lack of clarity about where the Labour party is going”. He describes his relationship with Corbyn as “very good” – “30 years sitting next to each other, literally. And almost 40 years marching together” – and says, “I’d do anything for him” were it not for the “shark-infested waters” of anti-Corbyn Labour MPs.
“Jeremy will be challenged and will be the leader of just one of two Labour parties,” he predicts. “The air is still thick with coup predictions, and I think accurately.”
He claims that Khan would be the first to stage a coup against Corbyn. “He would have the newest mandate, you see . . . I’m absolutely sure he’d be handpicked to deliver the bullet. He’d be the man in the proverbial grey suit, and I think Corbyn knows that.”
How would it happen? “The Parliamentary Labour Party passes a motion of no confidence and elects its own leader, who becomes the Leader of the Opposition. Then we’d have two Labour leaders – one, the leader of the party in the country, and one, the leader of the party in Parliament. That’s a recipe for a formal split.”
But until that time comes, it seems Galloway will be throwing his fedora into the ring for every electoral opportunity that pops up. Why? “There are too many people in politics who are basically robots. Desiccated calculating machines,” he growls. “People are looking for someone who believes in something, someone who has a clear view – it might be the wrong view – but it’s clear.”