BRADFORD, United Kingdom — It didn’t take long. It rarely does. Forty-four seconds into his latest election debate, George Galloway had already pivoted to the war in Iraq. Describing the 2003 invasion as a “gigantic crime,” the member of Parliament for Bradford West blamed the “most grotesque coalition in all history—the Bush-Blair gang.”
In this lively mid-sized city in West Yorkshire, it turns out America-hating is a sure-fire vote-winner. Galloway, who’s been on good terms with most of the top U.S.-haters, from Saddam Hussein and Bashar al Assad to Hugo Chavez, is running for reelection, and he’s expected to win. But that tells you as much about the changing face of Britain as it does about this unlikely Scottish politician or diplomatic relations across the Atlantic.
In turbulent recent years, the controversial MP has been accused by a U.S. Senate subcommittee of profiting from the United Nations’s Oil-for-Food program in Iraq; been expelled from the Labour Party; hosted regular shows on Iran’s Press TV and Russia Today; attempted to redefine rape; and purred like a cat on the Big Brother reality show.
For most politicians, these résumé entries would be insurmountable problems. Not for George Galloway. Despite having no major party backing, he was comfortably elected MP for Bradford in 2012 and remains the clear favorite to be returned to the Houses of Parliament at next month’s General Election.
To make any sense of his enduring popularity, you need to visit his district.
On Oak Lane in the city’s Manningham neighborhood a huge banner shows Galloway’s face beneath the name of his left-wing party, Respect, which grew out of the Stop the War coalition in 2004. The banner was fastened to the side of Punjab Halal Meat, a butcher that specializes in whole lambs available for around $100 apiece.
A few yards up the hill, Sohail Khokar, 26, was standing at the door of one of his family’s three barber shops. The Manningham district, he explained, used to be a vibrant area with a mixed community. “It’s all Asians here now,” he said. Women are dressed modestly in the hijab, men in the shalwar kameez. In the whole city, over 20 percent of the population describes itself as Pakistani or British Pakistani, but the area has never had a Muslim MP.
The young businessman said Galloway had been instrumental in setting up a women-only gym in the neighborhood and was always checking in, asking how business was going. “George cares for what we care for,” he said. And that doesn’t just mean day-to-day commercial life in the city. Galloway also stands against what he has described as “absolute Yankee domination” of the world.
His championing of the Palestinian territories and attacks on the invasion of Iraq have gone way beyond typical Western liberal critiques. He compared President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler and declared Bradford to be an “Israel-free zone,” where Israeli academics and tourists were not welcome.
Debates about the Middle East and South Asia are seen as more than just foreign policy in Bradford. “They’re our sacred lands,” said Khokar.
That’s music to Galloway’s ears. For 20 years he was an MP for Glasgow, where a tiny proportion of the population was excited about his pro-Palestinian campaigning. “Now that I’m the member of Parliament for Bradford it’s like being in heaven without having to die,” he told The Daily Beast, “because everyone virtually in Bradford West constituency is with me entirely on the issue of Iraq, on the issue of Palestine. Hallelujah, I say. Don’t blame me for it.”
“Muslims like me because I stand up for them; I don’t stand up for them because they like me,” said Galloway.
He was kicked out of the Labour Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair for a series of attacks on the war in Iraq that were deemed to have encouraged British troops to defy orders and incited the Arab world to take up arms against Britain.
In 2005, Galloway stood as a Respect candidate in Bethnal Green and Bow, another area with a large Asian population, beating the Labour candidate who had supported the invasion of Iraq. Two years later, he was suspended from Parliament after an investigation into Oil-for-Food program links to his charity, which opposed United Nations sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime before the war.
Despite the suspension, Galloway’s political life would be revived in Bradford in 2012 where he breached another Labour stronghold. “I did say that Mr. Blair and New Labour would rue the day that they expelled me and I think they’ve rued it once or twice,” he said.
Before the start of his third political life, he had already begun to diversify; hosting shows on Iran’s Press TV, Russia’s RT and Al-Mayadeen, a Beirut-based channel that has been linked to Hezbollah.
Galloway insisted there was nothing wrong with profiting from his appearances on these channels. “I don’t take money, I take wages,” he said. “Every television presenter gets wages and so do I, and they’re declared in full in the parliamentary register. If Rupert Murdoch tomorrow offered me a show on Sky [Murdoch’s British TV network], I’d take it, the only proviso would be the same proviso I’ve made to all these stations, Al-Mayadeen, Press TV, RT. It’s the same proviso—don’t try and tell me what to say, don’t try and tell me what I cannot say. I am bound to tell you none of these three stations has never done that, but I don’t think Rupert Murdoch would make the same offer.”
Just two weeks before Election Day, Galloway found time for a trip to London to tape a show for Al-Mayadeen about Venezuela and its relationship with the U.S.
In a small studio in West London, he looked into the camera and urged his viewers to “spread awareness of what the United States is up to here, know that what is happening in Venezuela today will be somewhere else tomorrow. Any government, even a British one, it might sound far-fetched, if Britain had a government like the government of [Nicholas] Maduro and Chavez before him, the United States would try and overthrow it. They have no limits—they don’t want people to come to know there is another way of doing things.”
Two hundred miles north, Fizah Koser, 36, an estate agent from Bradford who was wearing a hijab, explained that Galloway is “the only voice we’ve ever had.”
One woman who is battling to overturn that widely held belief is Naz Shah, Labour’s candidate standing against Galloway. Her extraordinary personal story includes a period of exile in Pakistan where her mother sent her at the age of 12. Shah said she was forced into an abusive arranged marriage at the age of 15.
The Labour candidate was eventually able to escape her tormentor but not before she’d had three children, and her mother had snapped and poisoned her own abusive partner with arsenic. Shah’s mother was convicted of murder in 1993.
Shah would appear to be as tough an opponent as you could imagine, but since winning the Labour selection she has suffered vile online abuse and discovered a murdered crow, with grass placed in its beak, in her backyard.
“If people want to play them tactics and want to go through an election using them kind of tactics that’s their choice, but it’s not what I’m going to be rising to,” she told The Daily Beast.
Galloway’s associates have accused Shah of lying about her ordeal after the Respect MP sent an intermediary in Pakistan to uncover her marriage certificate. The document claims that she was 16, not 15, at the time of the wedding, which Shah disputes.
Shah declined to ask Galloway to call off his supporters. “That’s George Galloway’s choice,” she said. “I want this election to be about Bradford West. Galloway came to town like a circus and he’s going to leave like a circus.”
On Thursday, Galloway promised that defeat in Bradford would leave him free to run to be the next mayor of London. The circus will continue.