Home » Who is George Galloway, the British politician who has won Rochdale? | Israel War on Gaza News

Who is George Galloway, the British politician who has won Rochdale? | Israel War on Gaza News

by Marko Florentino
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George Galloway, the firebrand veteran British politician, made a triumphant return to Westminster’s House of Commons on Monday after securing a thumping by-election victory in northwest England last week, largely as a result of his opposition to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

Galloway, who represents the hard-left, fringe Workers Party of Britain, which he founded in 2019, took the constituency of Rochdale with 12,335 votes or 39.7 percent of the vote.

The constituency was formerly held by Labour’s Sir Tony Lloyd, whose death in January triggered the by-election. In the 2019 general election, Lloyd won 53 percent of the vote in Rochdale. But on February 12, the Labour Party withdrew support for its candidate, Azhar Ali, after he was accused of making anti-Semitic comments and it emerged he had suggested that Israel had deliberately allowed the October 7 attack by Hamas to happen. The shunned Ali, who stood for election anyway, went on to poll just 7.7 percent.

In his victory speech after his headline win last Thursday, the Scottish-born legislator, who has a fondness for fedora hats and cutting put-downs, signalled local voters’ disillusion with the mainstream parties when he labelled the United Kingdom’s Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour’s opposition leader, Sir Keir Starmer, “two cheeks of the same backside”.

It was a typically provocative statement from the four-times married Galloway, who, stridently pro-Palestinian, has campaigned against Israel’s war on Gaza in the Greater Manchester town which hosts a large Muslim minority.

George Galloway
Then-Respect Party member George Galloway, left, with antiwar demonstrators in  Manchester on the eve of The Labour Party Conference in September 2006 [Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

Who is George Galloway?

Galloway, 69, hails from Dundee on Scotland’s east coast. He has long been a thorn in the side of the British political establishment, not least since 2003 when then-UK Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair expelled him from the party due to his uncompromising opposition to the Iraq War.

Galloway had once been viewed as a Labour Party rising star, having become chair of the Scottish Labour Party at just 26 in 1981. Six years later, he made good on his prospects when he won a UK Parliamentary seat in Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, while Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.

However, Galloway soon revealed his taste for the outlandish and the controversial when, still a newly elected member of Parliament, a journalist asked him in September 1987 about his attendance at a charity conference in Greece.

Bizarrely, he responded, “I travelled and spent lots of time with people in Greece, many of whom were women, some of whom were known carnally to me,” responded Galloway, who was then married to his first wife, Elaine. “I actually had sexual intercourse with some of the people in Greece.”

Galloway’s spicy revelations earned him the moniker “Gorgeous George”.

His expulsion from the Labour Party in October 2003 over his strong objection to the war in Iraq did not dim his political ambitions. He served as an MP for the antiwar Respect Party in London’s Bethnal Green and Bow from 2005 to 2010, and Bradford West in northern England from 2012 to 2015.

Whether Galloway’s decision to imitate a cat and nibble from a fellow contestant’s hands in the 2006 edition of the UK’s popular reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother – described in the Times this week as a “temple of vacuousness” – also added to his electoral appeal in Rochdale is unknown.

Why is he so passionate about the Palestinian cause?

Galloway attributes his commitment to the Palestinian cause in part to a visit to war-torn Beirut in 1977. He would later recall of the trip, “Although it was a difficult decision for me to make the journey back to Scotland, barely a week after my return, I made a pledge in the Tavern Bar in Dundee’s Hawkhill District, to devote the rest of my life to the Palestinian and Arab cause, whatever the consequences for my own political future.”

He kept his word and, in 1980, was involved with the twinning of his native Dundee with Nablus in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank.

He has spent time in the Palestinian territories, meeting then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah in 2002.

In August 2014, Galloway was assaulted on a street in west London by a man wearing a shirt with an Israeli military logo, leaving him needing hospital treatment for cuts and bruises to his head and ribs. His assailant, Neil Masterson, was jailed later that year for 16 months.

George Galloway
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, welcomes British Member of Parliament and peace activist George Galloway, May 8, 2002, in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah [Hussein Hussein/PPO/Getty Images]

What highly controversial positions has he taken?

In 1994, Galloway met then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and, in front of the TV cameras, stated, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”

Galloway later claimed that he was saluting the people of Iraq, not Saddam Hussein himself. But his comments prompted the politician’s many political detractors to accuse him of supporting an oppressive Iraqi regime. It also heralded the arrival of “indefatigability” – a hitherto rarely used word – into the British public mainstream where, for many Britons of a certain age, it retains a somewhat comical link to Galloway.

In his 2004 book, I’m Not the Only One, Galloway appeared to defend Iraq’s claim over Kuwait, describing the state – which was invaded by Saddam in 1990, sparking the first Gulf War – as “clearly a part of the greater Iraqi whole stolen from the motherland by perfidious Albion”.

Galloway’s interest in Iraq led to him being accused by the US Senate of profiting from Iraqi oil sales. The Briton, never one to shirk a challenge, faced down his accusers in 2005 when he appeared before a Senate Subcommittee, and declared, in a clear nod towards Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt of the early 1950s, “I am not now nor have I ever been an oil trader and neither has anyone on my behalf.”

In recent years, he has been forced to refute allegations that he is an “Assad apologist” regarding his perceived support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

How did Galloway secure such a resounding victory in Rochdale?

Galloway’s decision to campaign on his opposition to Israel’s war on Gaza, and to call out the UK’s staunch support for the Israeli regime, was, it seems, a galvanising factor for many voters in Rochdale where, in the 2021 census, some 19 percent of residents describe themselves as Muslim

The Scot’s success was also undoubtedly boosted by current disarray in the Labour Party, which withdrew support for Ali, despite him remaining a Labour candidate on the ballot.

An election board encouraging people to vote for candidate George Galloway, leader of the Workers Party of Britain, before the Parliamentary by-election in Rochdale [Phil Noble/Reuters]

What has the reaction to Galloway’s election victory been?

Galloway’s win was enough to prompt Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to give an impromptu speech outside his Downing Street residence last Friday in which he equated the legislator’s election to a rise in “extremism” in the UK.

Galloway – who has been accused of anti-Semitism by supporters of Israel, such as in 2014 when he called for Bradford to be declared an “Israel-free zone” – replied that he “despised” the British prime minister.

Labour leader Keir Starmer maintained that “Galloway only won because Labour didn’t stand a candidate.”

He added, “I regret that we had to withdraw our candidate and apologise to voters in Rochdale. But I took that decision. It was the right decision.” Some commentators, however, said that Galloway’s win will place Starmer under yet more pressure to take a tougher stance on Israel.

Since the start of the war in Gaza, Labour’s position on the conflict has been seen as too lenient towards Israel by many Muslim voters and Labour Muslim politicians. Across the country, more than 60 Labour councillors have resigned in protest. In November 2023, 56 Labour MPs defied the party leadership to back the SNP’s call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

The Campaign Against Antisemitism sounded alarm at Galloway’s victory, saying he had “an atrocious record of baiting the Jewish community”.

It added, “Given his historic inflammatory rhetoric and the current situation faced by the Jewish community in this country, we are extremely concerned by how he may use the platform of the House of Commons in the remaining months of this parliament.”

The UK must hold a general election by January 2025, but many expect one to be called later this year.

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