With Respect sitting in opposition, I have come to their HQ in Tower Hamlets to meet Abjol Miah. A stick-fighting champion and former drugs worker, Miah is well known in the homes and masjids of Banglatown. A respected member of the East London Mosque, he is head of Tower Hamlets Respect. And he took the scalp of Labour’s most powerful figure, Professor Michael Keith, beating him right in the very heart of Shadwell. A year earlier, Miah had taken George Galloway across Bangladesh to meet its prominent political leaders and families. These contacts had, in turn, worked for them back here in the East End: it was not just the war, it seemed, which had won ‘Gorgeous’ George a seat. It was the extended ‘village vote’.
‘Labour is now petrified,’ Miah tells me. ‘The conventional politicians think conventionally. I don’t. I’ve studied that fella, wotsisname … The Art of War, Sun Tzu, and learned many battles have different objectives.’ Miah’s voice is soft-spoken, Cockney, but slipping easily into Sylheti or Arabic. Only in his mid-thirties yet a father of four, he is always on the road, at community events, up late at night talking with elders or plotting campaigns in his secret ‘battle HQ’, a friend’s run-down council flat just yards from Cable Street, where Jews and Communists had battled with Oswald Mosley’s fascists in 1936.
In his own words, Miah was ‘a bit of a lad’. But that was in the bad old days of gang violence and the BNP. In his teens he began studying Islam, and his life changed. ‘It shapes my character, my perception,’ he says. ‘It shapes my approach to other people. It also gives me a bit of humility,’ he says.
It is Miah’s dream to see his faith extended; to see the Palestinian flag floating above Tower Hamlets HQ; to twin the borough with the West Bank town of Jenin. ‘I think Muslims have the perfect role, a massive role, in shaping the moral fabric of politics,’ he says. ‘People in the western world have a great misunderstanding of an Islamic system. What is it? It’s a system where people feel comfortable to live, they’re able to worship freely … We’re the biggest political threat. Not just to the current administration – but to the whole system at the moment.’
Barnbrook is dressed in a beige suit; relaxed, legs sprawled outwards, flicking ash from a cigarette. He has a nonexistent upper lip and button nose and a neat, old-fashioned haircut. An official councillor’s badge is pinned to his lapel, an imitation-leather council briefcase clutched to his lap. ‘I’ve been told about you,’ he quips. ‘They told me, you know, to be careful. That you know Searchlight.’
I ask how he is finding power. ‘Power? Power, power… that’s not a word I would use,’ he laughs, hard and flat. ‘We can’t even get business cards!’ He counts off points on one hand: ‘We’ve got third-party interference, we’ve got the unions and we’ve got Ken Livingstone’s pet project, Unite Against Fascism [a pressure group linked, ironically, to Respect]. I’ve been approached by students, too, asking me how we go about campaigning. We know who they’re really working for …’
Barnbrook maintains that it is simply hard work, canvassing and listening to concerns that won him office. It is the ‘liberals’ who are misguided, not his party or the voters. And for the next few hours I hear of a return to the death penalty; the introduction of Sarah’s Law (the BNP is obsessed with paedophiles); the need for traditional educational values; and for strong law and order. When I ask what he really believes in, he hesitates. ‘I’m a nationalist. And I come from a social background. Erm, erm… Old Labour.’ But not, he claims suddenly, a national socialist. He laughs nervously. ‘No, no, I’m just joking! Ha ha ha ha!’
There is a sense of frustration, of dreams thwarted. ‘I went to the Royal Academy,’ he says. ‘I started exhibiting, making money.’ He says he taught around the world, making up to pounds 100,000 a year. ‘Then I moved to film,’ he adds with a wave of his hands, ‘worked with the likes of Stephen Frears, the Derek Jarmans, Tilda Swintons and all that. I even met Gilbert and George at a soiree once. Hence the “gayyy film”!’ (In 1989 he produced and directed a homoerotic film featuring naked men, scenes of flagellation and mutual masturbation. In 1999, party leader Nick Griffin had vented outrage that gays were ‘sick creatures … flaunting their perversion’ when they marched in protest against David Copeland’s nail bombs.) ‘It was a film I had to make,’ he says, ‘for a European fellowship. I wanted to do a film on social issues. So I chose sexuality.’
Yet he now finds such actions disgusting. ‘People in the party have asked me, “Richard, are you gay?” No, I am not. “Did you bugger people?” No, I did not.’
In early autumn, I return to Mile End to talk with some of Respect’s old friends. Reverts to Islam. Gang members and drug dealers incensed by the wars on their ‘brothers’. In the choking incense of a shishe pipe, an angry young man sneers when I say that Galloway uses ‘inshallah’ and other Arabic terms in his speech: ‘He’s like you, man, a replica of one of you! An old version with a cigar, yeah?’
So the new generation is already turning from ‘Gorgeous’ George. Just a year earlier and they had been handing out leaflets, insisting the Scottish MP had taken the shahadah (Islamic conversion).