Profile: George Galloway, who “is going to vote for Beelzebub, I’m going to vote for a Scottish Tory”

4 Mar

Welcome aboard, George. The Conservatives have gained a new and at first sight unlikely supporter in the Holyrood elections.

George Galloway is a ferocious orator, who rejoiced Unionist hearts during the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign by carrying the fight to the Nationalists with a brio unmatched by any other speaker.

He has now announced, in the course of his talk show on Russia Today (at 59 minutes and 30 seconds on this recording), in answer to a call from David in Glasgow:

“Here’s a declaration, David, you never expected to hear from me. I’ll be voting Conservative in the elections in May, on my constituency vote, for the first time in my life, because my local MSP is a Conservative and the challenger to him is the SNP.

So my view is that everyone should vote for the best placed candidate standing against the SNP. Because this is a one-off election. It’s a referendum on a referendum. It’s an attempt to stop the neverendum. It’s an attempt to get Scotland off the hamster wheel of endless constitutional peregrinations.

It’s an attempt to get the country back from the brink. And therefore it qualifies as an existential threat not just to Scotland but to Britain as a whole.

So frankly, I’d vote for Beelzebub himself [David starts to chuckle] rather than the SNP, and I’m going to vote for Beelzebub, I’m going to vote for a Scottish Tory.”

Galloway, a left-wing socialist, is in normal times a sworn enemy of the Tories, and has also shown a marked ability to fall out with people on his own side.

A Tory who has often crossed swords with Galloway in the past, and takes a low view of him, responded with Churchill’s remark:

“If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

For just as the EU referendum of 2016 trumped existing party loyalties and forced people into strange alliances, so the future of the Union with Scotland is a great constitutional question which stirs such deep feelings that it cuts through everything else.

For Galloway, the crisis is also an opportunity. Last summer, he set up Alliance4Unity, which is now seeking to maximise the number of anti-Nationalist MSPs by urging Scots to  cast their first, constituency, vote, for whichever Unionist candidate – Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat – has the best chance of beating the SNP in that particular seat, and then cast their second vote for Alliance4Unity, which will field an eclectic list of candidates, united only in their determination to oppose independence.

Even some readers of ConservativeHome might be hard pressed to explain, in a few sentences, the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system, combining as it does, by use of the d’Hondt method, first-past-the-post voting in individual constituencies with a second, top-up vote for each party’s regional list, making the final result more proportional.

So here is a fact sheet produced by the Scottish Parliament which renders the whole thing crystal clear, and which states that an independent candidate needs to get between six and seven per cent of the regional, top-up vote to gain election.

Margo MacDonald secured election by this route after falling out with the SNP, and Galloway, who was thrown out of the Labour Party in 2003, evidently hopes he can repeat her success.

His chances are at this stage unpredictable. We do not know what will happen in Scotland, and Galloway’s own career is rich in electoral triumph and disaster. Sometimes he unexpectedly comes out on top, as in the acrimonious Bradford West by-election of March 2012, where he stood as the Respect candidate and courted the Muslim vote, after which Andy McSmith observed, in a profile of Galloway for The Independent:

“When he announced that he was running in Bradford West, it appeared to be a desperate attempt by a half-forgotten man to draw attention to himself. Almost the only people to spot what was actually happening were punters who bet so heavily on a Galloway victory that the bookies are saying the result is costing them £100,000. George Galloway is back on the scene.”

Sometimes he fails just as definitively, as in the 2019 general election, when he came sixth in West Bromwich East with 489 votes.

In the nine weeks between now and polling day, the pandemic may prevent him from playing his natural game, which would be to hold a series of public meetings at which he would draw in the crowds by giving brilliantly entertaining speeches.

Here he is speaking during the 2014 referendum campaign:

“I have been divorced more than once. Trust me it is never ever amicable, whatever anybody tells you. But you can make a deal. You can give the partner who is walking out on you all the CDs the DVDs, the dog, the car – you can give them everything, but the one thing you will never ever give them is the right to continue to use the joint credit card.

And that is what their plan A – and they have no plan B – amounts to.

They want to use a currency issued by the Bank of England – the clue being in the name; they want to continue to use it and they imagine that the people that issue it will allow them to do so; to use the joint credit card, even though and as they are walking out the door.

So this is the first time ever that people in a small country, where everyone speaks the same language, are being asked to break up and break up on the basis that they don’t have a currency to use.

There will be no pound. Trust me on that. I came yesterday from Parliament (where) the leaders of the mainstream parties have not changed their minds. An independent Scotland will not have the pound.

What will it have instead? The euro – how’s that going? Anybody fancy that or are we going to bring back the groat?

I see one or two pensioners here, or people close to pensionable age. How do you fancy your pension in groats? How do you fancy a pension that is based entirely on the absolutely unstable price of a commodity that will be finished in 2050?

And in my lifetime oil has been as low as $9 a barrel and as high as $156 a barrel. Who wants to mortgage their children and their children’s future on a finite resource that will soon be finished and the price of which is simply un-calculable? Un-calculable.”

This kind of rhetoric reaches voters, and indeed non-voters, who are repelled by the platitudes of the professional political careerists.

Galloway will be dismissed, by prosy commentators – and especially by prosy commentators of Nationalist sympathies – as a disreputable loner, an egotist, an opportunist and troublemaker who must be kept out of the mainstream media and left to address a few cranks on stations like Russia Today to which no decent person listens.

But he has a lot of followers on social media, and he may have spotted a gap in the market. Just as there are some socialists who want a more socialist Labour Party, so there are some Unionists who want a more uncompromising unionism, articulated by an insurrectionist who take on the whole Holyrood Establishment, a Dundonian boot boy who can reach the Scottish working class and treats politics as a blood sport.

In the 2010 general election, I toured the East End of London with Galloway:

“As we approached the headquarters of Respect, the party he created when he fell out with Labour, we warned ourselves not to be seduced by the oratory of the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, who is this time standing in the adjacent east London seat of Limehouse and Poplar.

But gleaming in the sun outside his office stood a beautiful, red, open-topped Routemaster bus. Like Boris Johnson, Mr Galloway knows that few things raise the spirits so much as the chance to go for a ride on the top deck of the finest bus ever to lumber through the streets of London…

Mr Galloway arrived. He wore a natty pin-striped suit and was smoking a cigar. According to Mr Galloway, he has been wearing suits since the age of 15. We asked where this one came from and he said it was from a shop called Retro.

So we were in the presence of a Retro politician: a man able to make an unscrupulous appeal to our preference for old-fashioned clothes and old-fashioned language.

To see whether Mr Galloway could also manage old-fashioned niceness, we put it to him that Jim Fitzpatrick, the Labour MP whom he is hoping to defeat, is “a decent fellow”.

‘Yes,’ Mr Galloway replied, ‘apart from the fact that he voted for a war that killed a million people. It kind of invalidates any other qualities.’ Mr Galloway went on: ‘I want to punish the people who voted for the war, one by one if necessary.'”

The vindictive Galloway only managed to come third in Limehouse and Poplar, but the point stands that this old-style orator and strict teetotaller in his natty suits is more of a small-c conservative than his critics are willing to admit.

They denounce him for making common cause with Muslims who have old-fashioned views about, for example, the role of women, without pausing to consider that many Christians until recently held much the same views about women, and that Galloway, born in 1954 in Dundee into a working-class Roman Catholic household, may have learned in his youth to regard such views as normal.

He showed precocious ability as a Labour campaigner, also developed an early and unwavering allegiance to the Palestinian cause, arranged for Dundee to be twinned with Nablus in the West Bank, affronted some Dundonians by hoisting the Palestinian flag above the Council Chambers, and at the age of 26 became the youngest ever Chairman of the Scottish Labour Party.

In 1987, Galloway regained Glasgow Hillhead for Labour, defeating Roy Jenkins, one of the founders of the SDP. Galloway had already demonstrated a gift for stirring up controversy, and for discomforting his opponents, while running the charity War on Want, and he proceeded to become an unruly MP.

He was attacked for telling Saddam Hussein, at a meeting in 1994:  “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.” Galloway was thrown out of the Labour Party in 2003 for going too far in his opposition to the Iraq War – he had suggested British troops “refuse to obey illegal orders”.

But he remained in the House as an Independent MP until 2005, when he captured Bethnal Green and Bow for his new party, Respect, after a rough battle for Muslim votes with the Labour candidate, Oona King.

Galloway is a provocateur who often so infuriates his opponents that they overstate the case against him, whereupon he turns the tables on them. In 2005 he went to Washington and denounced some American senators who had supposed he was a discredited figure who would would defer to them.

He also demonstrated his gifts as a controversialist by debating in New York against Christopher Hitchens, whom he had attacked as “a drink soaked former Trotskyist popinjay”. The recording of this affair serves as a good example of each man’s style.

Frank Johnson, doyen of Westminster sketchwriters, recognised Galloway as “a tremendous parliamentarian”. Journalists who value entertainment, and the upsetting of apple carts, above the steadier virtues, will be yearning for Galloway to gain election to the Scottish Parliament.

Alliance4Unity has recruited a number of other candidates, including Jamie Blackett, a farmer, writer and former soldier, who accepted the post of Deputy Leader, and Alan Sked, founder of UKIP.

Galloway has his vehicle. By the end of the first week in May we shall know whether it has taken him and some of his companions to Holyrood.

Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

24 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.