All my new year’s resolutions of getting fit went awry at the beginning of this year when I got a cold. So there I was on the sofa watching the first episode of Celebrity Big Brother. I don’t care who fancies whom, or whether the beautiful people look not-quite-so-beautiful in the morning, but when George Galloway’s participation was announced I was absolutely fascinated.
A straw poll of my PhD studying friends suggested that 70% of - in this case politically interested and academic young people - thought he shouldn’t be in there, and those who thought he should didn’t quite have the most pro-George reasons. He’s also come under fire today from Labour’s Chief Whip and previously from a group of his constituents, although the ‘things were better under Oona’ line on their website makes me wonder how representative they are. I find myself dubious about the arguments made about why George’s participation in the Celebrity Big Brother house is so wrong…
Three main reasons have been given against him. Firstly, the taxpayer pays George a salary and he’s not currently serving his constituents in Bethnal Green and Bow. Secondly, he is elected to be in Parliament and those legislative duties are more important. Thirdly, it’s a cynical ploy to win popular support – we don’t believe that George has good motives for engaging with British youth culture and making politics more relevant. These arguments don’t quite hold up, and so we miss a serious point.
George Galloway is indeed not currently serving his constituent’s various and important needs in Bethnal Green and Bow. But George’s absence from his constituency only puts him in the category of many MPs who take extended periods away from their constituencies, for lengthy holidays, business interests, or even expensive ‘fact finding’ trips paid for by the taxpayer. I say this as someone who believes the vast majority of MPs work extremely hard for very little pay-off, but George Galloway is by no means alone in taking leave from his constituency, and he may have had a genuine public-service motive in doing so. Would it have been more excusable if he took time away from his constituency in the long summer vacation along with other colleagues, to make money by other means or to spend a long summer in his second home in the South of France? Life doesn’t change in Bethnal Green and Bow just because the sun’s shining.
So perhaps the problem is that George is in the House when the other House is sitting. Some of the above arguments still apply, but I’m not convinced that an independent MP can have his biggest impact by speaking or voting in tightly controlled party votes in the House of Commons, even those directly affecting his constituency (one of the many reasons it’s such a shame he won the seat – the people of his constituency needed meaningful representation more than many others). He can hold meetings, organise ‘eye catching initiatives’, table written questions or even a Private Member’s Bill, but does a couple of weeks, or even a matter of days if he gets voted out, alter his ability to have the same impact as he would have done? He could have made an intervention in the Crossrail debate but it’s highly unlikely that he can influence the outcome of a whipped vote.
Perhaps, therefore, the underlying discomfort we feel towards his participation in Big Brother is the perception that George Galloway is making a high profile and cynical appeal for votes, popular support, or influence upon what we think about the Iraq war. But then we, and he, totally underestimate those people watching. If he acts in a cynical way he will, without any doubt, simply harm himself by doing so. If this is the outcome then he has also done politics a disservice by adding to cynicism more broadly, though this would not be without comparison to selfish party splits and back-stabbing that is not unheard of by those who may wish to criticise George. Doubts about George Galloway’s motives for other high profile actions can lead us to confuse whether he should be there, but that’s a quite separate issue.
Where George Galloway has made a huge error of judgement, and I think he has realised it, is underestimating the depth of the barrel scraped in this case by the Channel 4 programmers. Imagine a TV programme concept in which a group of unwell people are forced to undergo gruelling tasks so we could see them fail and suffer. Celebrity Big Brother is not so far removed. In a previous series I watched the final episode when the winner was the only one not in the joke as others watched on and laughed. It was one of the more disturbing things I’d ever seen on television. But this series is so much worse. Some of the celebrities in the house have gone in to overcome huge emotional issues but instead it’s leading to bullying, name calling and playground tactics to undermine each other, sadly, with the hope of being accepted and loved. And there is George Galloway in the midst of the mayhem, attempting to maintain some purpose. Big Brother isn’t the interesting cultural phenomenon it was when it began. It’s become more and more desperate to out-do its prior sensationalism, and it now endorses the worst of British culture, complete with sexual obsession, alcohol abuse and puking, a lack of self respect or selfless tenderness towards others. I wonder if George Galloway now thinks it is such a laudable thing to be so ‘in touch’ with all reflections of British society?
For me, there are good and bad things to come out of this story. The bad is that I find myself perpetuating the publicity about a programme I find distasteful, and George Galloway’s participation may have broadened its audience. He’s also endorsing an exploitative voyeurism which began as a more harmless novelty. But may some good arise too? The criticisms made about George Galloway’s involvement should raise some important issues, and Hilary Armstrong may like to wait before she points the finger so quickly. An informed debate on the actual and appropriate role and remit of MPs may indeed be good for politics. Also, if the constituents in Bethnal Green and Bow ask for more of their MP, and if George Galloway spends the next years convincing them he’s doing it, then that will be worth it too.
For me, I’m happy that I won’t be watching the programme anymore and I can start my new year’s resolutions. At least running on the treadmill isn’t nearly as painful.