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George Galloway: Who is the new MP for Rochdale?

George Galloway has been returned to parliament | Alamy

George Galloway: Who is the new MP for Rochdale?

After his victory in the Rochdale by-election, George Galloway is the UK’s newest MP.

But the Scottish politician is no stranger to elected office, having been an MP for both Labour and Respect, and nor is he stranger to controversy, famously saluting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for his “indefatigability” on the one hand and pretending to be a cat on Celebrity Big Brother (CBB) on the other.

Now leader of the Workers Party of Britain, which was registered with the Electoral Commission in 2020, Dundee-born Galloway topped the poll in a contest marked by turmoil. And, with a campaign run out of a Suzuki garage, his win has ended a by-election described by some as “radioactive”.

What happened?

The contest was called following the death of Labour Party incumbent Sir Tony Lloyd, a well-known figure in the Greater Manchester area.

Any hope of Labour holding on to the seat vanished when it withdrew support from its candidate Azhar Ali in a row over comments he made, which suggested that Israel had been complicit in the 7 October terror attack by Hamas.

Galloway ran his campaign from a car garage | Alamy

Ali went on to stand as an independent and it was too late for Labour to put up another candidate. Essentially, the party lost the seat before the ballot boxes opened and Gaza dominated the race. Galloway issued leaflets in the colours of the Palestinian flag and described the vote as a “referendum on Gaza”, a pitch that garnered support amongst the area’s 30,000-strong Muslim community.

Labour’s handling of the Israel-Palestine conflict has exposed significant divisions in the party in recent months and led recently to chaotic scenes in the Commons when the Speaker blocked the SNP’s vote on the matter during its Opposition Day.

So who is George Galloway?

A veteran on the UK political scene, Galloway’s political and professional life has been so varied that it is difficult to sum up with any brevity.

The moustachioed father-of-six was once known by the nickname “Gorgeous George” and his trademark hats are arguably now less famous than the lycra jumpsuit he donned alongside Dead or Alive frontman Pete Burns in the 2006 series of CBB, in which he also pretended to lap milk from the hands of actress Rula Lenska.

Sacked from his talkRADIO show for criticising the use of the Israeli flag by Tottenham Hotspur fans in the 2019 Champions League final, he fronted TV shows for channels backed by the Iranian and Russian governments and has tried to become and MSP and London mayor in a political life that has spanned several parties.

Galloway was previously elected for the Respect Party

He first entered the Commons in 1987 as the Labour MP for Glasgow Hillhead, and he represented the area until 2005. His relationship with his own party was at times challenging and saw clashes with figures including former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont.

Galloway was a serial rebel and outspoken critic of war in Iraq. After praising Hussein for his courage, strength and indefatigability in 1994, he said this had really been praise for the Iraqi people but Labour was not impressed by the statement nor the visit, which had been undertaken without authorisation from the whips. “I deeply deplore the foolish statement made in Iraq by Mr George Galloway,” Labour leader John Smith said at the time. “In no way did he speak for the Labour Party and I wholly reject his comments.”

Later, he was suspended from the House of Commons after the standards committee found that Galloway’s usage of parliamentary resources on working on a charity appeal had gone “beyond what was reasonable”.

What was that about the Scottish Parliament?

Galloway campaigned for Scottish devolution in the 1990s. That campaign saw him share a platform with a young Nicola Sturgeon and others, though there would be a later row over his inclusion in a debate ahead of the 2014 referendum.

Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie of the Greens considered pulling out of an indyref debate for teenagers due to Galloway’s inclusion on the panel. That was after he described the sex offence allegations against Julian Assange as being “bad sexual etiquette”. Ultimately, the event went ahead as planned.

Nicola Sturgeon, George Galloway and Pat Kane campaign in Glasgow | Alamy

Galloway – who backed Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader and advocated for Leave in the EU referendum – attempted election to the Scottish Parliament in the 2021 contest, when he fronted unionist outfit All for Unity as its “lead spokesperson”, but not leader. The party, which was registered to a mailbox address in Ayr and used an RAF-style roundel as its emblem, failed to secure any seats and was deregistered the following year.

The party also crowdfunded more than £12,000 for Galloway to contest the expected by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, but in the end he did not appear on the ballot paper.

In Rochdale, Galloway said he is “in favour of a democratic state for Jews, Muslims and Christians between the river and the sea”, and compared the town to its football club. Pledging to have maternity services reopened locally, he said: “It got relegated, relegated, relegated until it fell out of the league altogether. And that’s what’s happened to the town.”

What can we expect from him?

From the man who debated Christopher Hitchens over the Iraq war in a New York event dubbed the “Grapple in the Big Apple”? It’s probably wise to expect the unexpected.

However, it should be clear by now that Galloway is unlikely to be a quiet presence in the Commons.

The event with Hitchens saw the men argue their pro-war and anti-war cases and came after Galloway’s appearance before the US Senate, where he accused members of that house of having created “the mother of all smokescreens” and denied charges that he had profited from illegal Iraqi oil sales. “You traduced my name around the world without ever having asked me a single question, without ever having contacted me, without ever having written to me or telephoned me, without any contact with me whatsoever, and you call that justice,” he said.

After the result in Rochdale, one of the most divisive figures in modern Labour history is back in parliament, but he no longer shares the party's platform. How the parliament reacts to Galloway is perhaps as much of an issue as how Galloway approaches the parliament.

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