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George Galloway: constituency-hopping campaigner who is rarely far from controversy

Meeting Saddam Hussein in 1994, George Galloway told the Iraqi dictator: “I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.” Thirty years on, even Galloway’s most vocal opponents must salute his indefatigability, if nothing else, as the 69-year-old father of six takes yet another seat in parliament.

His stunning win in Rochdale was his seventh parliamentary victory of a political career in which he has represented four cities and three parties across four decades, equalling Winston Churchill’s constituency-hopping record.

Less Churchillian was his appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, moonlighting from his day job as the Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow by donning a red unitard and pretending to be a cat.

The Rochdale win marks a late political resurrection for Galloway, whose traditional support among British Muslims might not have survived the sectarian dimensions of the Syrian civil war. He denied chemical weapons attacks by the regime and took a job on an Arab television channel said to be linked to Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad.

However, anger over Israel’s offensive in Gaza offered a way back and when he pitched up in Rochdale in February, Galloway did not pretend to have strong links to the Greater Manchester town.

George Galloway campaign placards in Rochdale
Campaign placards in Rochdale before the byelection. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

He made a few local promises – to bring back a maternity hospital, as well as a Primark – but his was essentially a single-issue campaign, fought on Palestine and targeted squarely at the Muslims who make up 30% of Rochdale’s population.

He repeatedly invoked religious imagery to win what he called the “ultimate protest vote”. Outside one mosque after Friday prayers, he asked worshippers whether on “judgment day” they would be able to tell their children and grandchildren that they had opposed Keir Starmer’s position on Gaza.

It all felt very familiar to veterans of Galloway’s last byelection win, in Bradford West in 2012, when he was carried aloft from the leisure centre count shouting “All praise to Allah” as a crowd of young Hummer-driving Muslim men chanted: “Viva Palestina!”

During that unpleasant campaign, Galloway annihilated the Labour vote by painting himself as a defender of the oppressed Muslims of Kashmir.

Galloway celebrates with supporters after winning the Bradford West byelection in 2012.
Galloway celebrates with supporters after winning the Bradford West byelection in 2012. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA

He rarely plays nicely. In the 2015 general election, in which he lost his Bradford seat in a Labour landslide, he was widely criticised after ordering an intermediary in Pakistan to dig out the Islamic marriage certificate of his Labour rival, Naz Shah, in order to try to prove she had been 16, not 15 as she had said, when she was forced into a violent and sexually abusive marriage.

In 2019, after being sacked by TalkRadio for what it called his “antisemitic views”, he tweeted his old bosses to say: “See you in court guys … Long live Palestine.” He was given the boot from the station not long after it had been censured by the media regulator Ofcom for breaching broadcasting impartiality rules when Galloway cast doubt on Russian involvement in the poisoning of Yulia and Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.

Many of those threatened with a libel suit do not go on to find themselves in court. The notable exception is the Telegraph, which ended up paying Galloway £150,000 in damages in 2004 after publishing a report claiming documents found in Baghdad during the Iraq war suggested he had received up to £375,000 a year from his old friend Saddam.

Galloway speaking in Baghdad in September 2002.
Galloway speaking in Baghdad in September 2002. Photograph: Faleh Kheiber/Reuters

So what can Rochdale expect from their new MP? Not a lot of work inside parliament, if Galloway’s track record is anything to go by. In three years as Bradford West’s MP he spoke just 16 times in the House of Commons, sometimes going for six months or more without saying a word in the debating chamber.

When he did speak in parliament, it was usually about foreign affairs or to insult other MPs, once responding to an intervention from a Tory MP by saying: “I would much prefer to give way to the honourable gentleman than for him to cackle and wobble his ample girth from a sedentary position.”

He did find time to make programmes for Russia Today and al-Mayadeen TV, topping up his MP’s salary by £12,400 a month. His globetrotting was relentless, taking time out from his duties in Bradford and Westminster to campaign for Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and to attend events all over the world.

Controversy was never far away. Shortly after his election in Bradford, Galloway enraged anti-rape campaigners in Bradford when he described sexual assault allegations against the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as merely “bad sexual etiquette”. The investigation into Assange was later dropped.

Born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1954, Galloway became the youngest ever chair of the Scottish Labour party in 1981 and won his first parliamentary seat in Glasgow Hillhead (later Glasgow Kelvin) in 1987.

Always on the far left of the party, he was expelled by Labour in 2003 for bringing the party into disrepute over his prominent opposition to the Iraq war.

Galloway walks past supporters holding anti-war placards
Galloway arriving for a hearing to determine if he would be expelled from the Labour party for his criticism of the Iraq war, in October 2003. Photograph: Matthew Fearn/PA

He joined the Respect party and in 2005 won the London seat of Bethnal Green and Bow from Labour’s Oona King. Two years later he was suspended from parliament for 18 days after the Commons select committee on standards and privileges found “strong circumstantial evidence” that the UN’s oil for food programme had been used by the Iraqi government with Galloway’s “connivance” to fund the campaigning activities of his charity the Mariam Appeal.

In 2019 the Charity Commission found that Viva Palestina, another charity set up by Galloway, to deliver aid to Gaza, may not have conducted any charitable activity or distributed any humanitarian aid despite claiming to have gathered £1m in public donations.

While Respect fell apart amid rows involving constituent parts such as supporters from the Socialist Workers party and other factions, Galloway was involved in forming a new political vehicle in 2019, the Workers Party of Britain.

It aimed to soak up disillusioned former Corbynists leaving Labour after its 2019 defeat but ultimately it became a Galloway vehicle, with political foot soldiers provided by the CPGB-ML, a Stalinist far-left group that is tiny in number and came with China links.

Galloway before the 2005 election.
Galloway before the 2005 election. Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA

Galloway was able to make to the most of his new role, addressing the Chinese regime’s second International Forum on Democracy in Beijing, where he quoted Xi Jinping approvingly and criticised “the form of democracy in western countries”.

In an echo of Respect’s splits, the CPGB-ML withdrew but Galloway’s party has recruited figures including Chris Williamson, the former Labour MP who was suspended by that party after he criticised its handling of antisemitism allegations, and Peter Ford, a former UK ambassador to Syria.

The move to sidle up to Beijing was pre-dated by an embrace of Russia, which involved Galloway echoing pro-Kremlin talking points on Ukraine although he threatened to sue what was then called Twitter after the social network labelled his account as “Russian state-affiliated media”. By then his radio programme The Mother of All Talk Shows was being broadcast on the Russian state-owned Sputnik service.

Now back in parliament after a 12-year hiatus, Galloway has hinted he does not plan to spend his 70s as an outcast on the opposition benches. During the Rochdale campaign he repeatedly told voters he may be their MP for only “100 days” or however long until Rishi Sunak calls the next general election.

To others he has suggested he would serve no more than one last full term in parliament. He told his old adversaries at the Telegraph that he was planning his retirement. “I’m 69 years old and my youngest child is three. Well, I really do have obligations to others,” he said. “Having said that, because it’s half-term where they live, all my children are here with me in the campaign. But, no, five more years will do me finally.”