George Galloway takes aim at Labour as he injects controversy into rancorous UK by-election

Former Labour MP seeks support from Muslims in Jo Cox's former constituency
GRETNA GREEN, SCOTLAND - APRIL 20: George Galloway leader of the All For Unity Party campaigns during the Scottish Parliament election with a speech at the Gretna Gateway Outlet on April 20, 2021 in Gretna, Scotland. Mr Galloway visited Gretna with his wife Gayatri, where he gave a speech slamming First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

In the official history of War on Want it says this about George Galloway: “Even though the problems were not all of his own making, his way of dealing with them heightened tensions.”

It’s forgotten now that Galloway was general secretary of the British charity campaigning against poverty worldwide. He was in that post for four years, before entering Parliament as an MP for the first time in 1987. Even back then, there were signs of what was to come, of how Galloway conducted himself, that wherever he went, rows, controversy and not a little flamboyance surely followed.

So much has occurred, and is occurring still, in the life of "Gorgeous George". MP for four constituencies, two of them for Labour; expelled from the party; vocal opponent of the Iraq war; close to Saddam Hussein; protester against Iraq sanctions; accused in a US Senate report of being a beneficiary of the UN oil-for-food programme, a charge he has always denied; champion of the people of Gaza; vehement critic of Israel and Zionism; TV presenter for Iranian state-run and Russian state-controlled stations; London mayoral candidate; opponent of armed intervention in Syria; enthusiastic endorser of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro; advocate for Scottish unionism; arch-Brexiteer; the list goes on.

That's not to mention the libel actions, inquiries, four marriages (he has six children); his rumoured switch from Catholicism to Islam (he insists his religious belief is a personal matter) and his never-to-be-forgotten appearance on Celebrity Big Brother (he was required to pretend to be a cat, get down on all fours and lick invisible milk cupped in the hands of Rula Lenska, the actress, something that apparently caused him to purr with contentment).

On it continues, the exhausting, never-ending Galloway show. The latest stop is his candidature, aged 66, in the Batley and Spen by-election. What seemed certain to occur was that Kim Leadbeater would win the seat for Labour. She is standing five years after her sister Jo Cox, the Yorkshire constituency's then MP, was murdered. Even Boris Johnson's assault on Labour's "Red Wall" would not succeed in overturning this one.

BATLEY, ENGLAND - JUNE 14:  A campaign poster for Workers Party of Britain candidate George Galloway adorns a house in the Batley and Spen constituency on June 14, 2021 in Batley, England.  (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

That was before Galloway threw his trademark black felt fedora into the ring. Now, all bets are off. The troublemaker-in-chief may steal it, or he might take sufficient votes off Labour and hand the Tories another northern scalp.

That was his intention when he joined the fight, to give Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer a bloody nose that could just spell the end of his reign. But having knocked on doors and pounded the streets and got behind the microphone again, Galloway, a natural orator and born rabble-rouser, is back in the ring. His goal is for Muslim voters to flock to him while showing a rare ability to combine that with white working-class support.

Where he's gaining the Muslim vote is in drawing attention to Starmer's determined stance against anti-Semitism, a key weapon of the current leadership against the previous Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Galloway and Corbyn are close, and they both wrap themselves in the Palestinian flag. The fact that Labour still backs the Palestinians does not matter – Corbyn's suspension from the party for refusing to accept the findings of a report into the party's anti-Semitism has been turned by the hard left, of which Galloway is a member, into proof that they've abandoned the cause.

To white working-class voters he's promoted his Brexit credentials, and he's gone big on woke, metropolitan elitism

To white working-class voters he’s promoted his Brexit credentials, and he’s gone big on woke, metropolitan elitism. He’s majored on crime and anti-social behaviour, which plays well on the council estates. And he’s attacked those who criticise fans for booing footballers taking the knee.

What was a peaceful, one-way contest is now becoming very dirty indeed, with anonymous messages circulating on social media highlighting Starmer's supposed "pro-Israel, pro-Zionist" leanings. That Starmer's wife is Jewish and their children are being raised as Jewish has also not been allowed to go unnoticed.

Galloway denies foul play. There are, though, certain truths leaping to the fore again. One is that this has become the sort of bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred scrap that Galloway absolutely loves. The second is that whether he succeeds or is defeated, his profile has been elevated. It had dipped – he was living in rural Scotland. So, just when it looked as though he was waning, back he roars. The third is that his bank balance, as ever, will benefit from a return to the limelight.

This last is one of the more intriguing aspects about Galloway. He’s a socialist, he represents his Workers Party of Britain which is “economically radical with an independent foreign policy” and “unequivocally committed to class politics”. He’s also, as they would say in Batley and Spen, “worth a few bob”. It’s not only his clothes that are natty. His homes, too, suggest someone who likes the finer things in life, who has a fair bit tucked away.

Six months ago, he moved with his wife and three youngest children to the countryside in Dumfries and Galloway (that’s what the area is called) in his native Scotland. He was, he said, “a country laird”, adding “I’ve got 500 trees and I know this because the kids counted them”.

Prior to this, in 2013, he sold a house in south London for £1.5 million ($2.1m). It may have had a black and white photograph of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara hanging over the fireplace but the property had five double bedrooms, three bathrooms and a large garden. The canny Galloway paid £200,000 for the three-storey house back in 1995.

Then, there are the libel victories, including against The Daily Telegraph and Christian Science Monitor, and the numerous newspaper columns and TV appearances. After he won the Bradford West by-election for his Respect party in 2012, he earned the third highest amount of outside earnings of any MP – £265,350 in 18 months, mainly from broadcasting in Russia, Iran and Lebanon. He was typically unabashed. The extra pay came from "just a few hours' work a week" and he used the appearances to "challenge the iron-clad consensus on both foreign and domestic policy between the major British political parties".

He’s also boasted about an early investment in Bitcoin. He won’t say how much he made. “Well, I wouldn’t divulge that to anyone but my accountant and the tax inspector.”

Win or lose, and I suspect he can win, Batley and Spen will serve to deliver more of the same.

Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, based in London