The race to be London Mayor is the biggest personality contest in politics. And one personality looms largest: George Galloway, back from Bradford and seeking his fortune on the capital’s streets.
In his public appearances, the Respect party leader has been on his usual bombastic form. But dig a little deeper, and it becomes apparent that his campaign — and his career — is on the shakiest ground.
In 2012, Galloway won the Bradford West by-election by 10,000 votes: a staggering coup. But at the general election this year his party was drummed out of town. Not only did Galloway lose, but Respect’s four councillors (who had only recently rejoined after a spat with their leader) have abandoned it again. Its registered headquarters is now a tanning salon.
Respect barely exists in Bradford — or anywhere else. In 2013, the membership fell to 230 people. Last year, that had rebounded to 630 — but beyond their membership fees, Respect raised only £1,133 in donations. Its assets were just £1,947.
Galloway’s mayoral campaign is, thus far, equally underpowered. His crowdfunding site has raised £3,140 of its £100,000 target. His launch in June attracted fewer than 200 people, and his campaign has just 1,289 followers on Twitter. Respect’s London messageboards and Facebook pages are a wasteland.
To understand how Galloway found himself in these straits, you have to understand what happened in Bradford.
As he had in Bethnal Green & Bow in 2005, Galloway swept into office amid genuine excitement. In particular, he represented a break from the biraderis — the Kashmiri clans who controlled local politics, and the local Labour party. But soon it all went — well, a bit Galloway. He alienated female constituents by claiming Julian Assange was guilty not of rape but ‘bad sexual etiquette’: ‘Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.’ He denied that Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons. He declared Bradford an ‘Israel-free zone’. He proved extraordinarily sensitive to slights real and imagined, blocking dozens of Twitter users.
Above all, the new MP seemed more concerned about his own profile than the voters’ wellbeing. ‘He’s a great orator, a great campaigner, but he’s not a very good constituency MP,’ says Mo Shafiq of the Ummah Channel, who was a supporter of Galloway’s, and still admires his foreign policy positions. ‘People didn’t see him out in the constituency.’
So what was he doing? Despite historically having one of Parliament’s worst attendance records, Galloway found time to host weekly television shows for Russia Today and Iran’s Press TV. He also flew to Beirut to record a fortnightly show for Al-Mayadeen TV. His total earnings from these amounted to just under £400,000.
Still, at the 2015 election, Galloway seemed set fair: not only had he made his peace with the biraderis, but the Labour selection was left hideously late. The winner then pulled out days later, handing the poisoned chalice to Naz Shah, a 41-year-old health worker and activist.
The campaign that followed was truly vicious. Shah was open about her traumatic history: abandoned by her father at six; sent to Pakistan to escape the depredations of her mother’s drug-dealer partner, whom her mother later murdered, at 12; subject to a forced marriage at 15.
Instead of sympathy, she received horrendous abuse. Galloway accused her of being a ‘liar’, of leading a ‘squalid, sorry life’, of the ‘slander of her own family, community and city’, of peddling ‘racist stereotypes’. At a stormy public debate, he waved what he claimed was her Pakistani marriage certificate to show she had been married at 16, not 15. ‘There were questions about her integrity, her forced marriage — it was very distasteful,’ says Shafiq. ‘People thought: “If this is how he speaks to her, how would he speak to my daughter?’’ ’
Elsewhere, Ben Judah, a reporter for Politico, claimed to have been hounded out of a Respect meeting by Galloway lackeys who punched him in the face and called him a ‘fucking Jew’.
Yet for all the sound and fury, much of Galloway’s support had drained away. ‘In 2012, apparently there were people fighting to get on the battle bus,’ says George Grant, the Tory candidate. ‘In 2015, it was a bit pathetic — just him and a couple of cronies.’ He also appeared to regard door-knocking as beneath him, sticking mostly to his bus.
‘He didn’t seem to have the machinery for a campaign,’ says Shah. ‘He just did the same thing over and over.’ In one of the surprises of election night, she turned his 10,000 majority into an 11,420 majority of her own.
The Respect leader claimed he would contest the result, citing ‘widespread malpractice’ involving postal voting. (No such petition has been lodged.) Galloway and Shah also each accused the other of violating the Representation of the People Act, which prohibits false and malicious statements by candidates or their agents. It is not known whether he lodged a formal complaint, but she certainly did, resulting in Galloway being questioned by West Yorkshire Police. The force confirmed to The Spectator that a file is being submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service, though it would not identify the individuals concerned.
Yet his controversial election campaign is not the only aspect of Galloway’s time in Bradford that casts doubt over his suitability to run London — or even to hold public office.
His main sponsor in the city in 2012 was a firm called Chambers Solicitors, whose office he used as a base. After the election, he moved into the building opposite, for which he claimed office costs from Ipsa, the parliamentary expenses authority. Both properties are owned by Mohammed Yousaf, patriarch of the family that runs Chambers and the owner of a string of betting shops in Bradford, Halifax, Leeds, Wakefield and Castleford. A strange landlord for a politician who has condemned gambling as ‘a vice more damaging than heroin’.
In February this year, some viewers of Question Time (on which Galloway was appearing) accused him of anti-Semitism. They received legal letters from Chambers demanding an apology, compensation and the immediate payment of £5,000, plus VAT, to cover the firm’s expenses. The demand was so extortionate that Mark Lewis, the libel lawyer at Seddons who led the charge on phone-hacking, reported Chambers to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The case is ongoing — as are fraud proceedings at Leeds Crown Court involving two Chambers solicitors, unconnected with the firm’s work for Galloway (they have denied any wrongdoing).
Galloway also has other problems. In 2009, he launched an organisation called Viva Palestina to deliver aid to Gaza. It has now been taken over by the Charity Commission, over concerns about serious financial mismanagement; the inquiry is ongoing, but its bank accounts have been frozen and its trustee (the head of the Scottish branch of Respect) suspended.
Galloway has also been sued by two of his former PAs, one of whom claimed £176,000 in unpaid expenses. The other, Aisha Ali-Khan, he accused of spying on him after discovering that her partner worked for Scotland Yard. She was convicted of encouraging her husband to access confidential emails. But her claim that Galloway misappropriated public funds by getting her to carry out personal chores such as buying his underwear and organising his wedding was taken seriously enough by Ipsa to be passed to the Metropolitan Police, which has launched yet another investigation.
Galloway not only denies any wrong-doing, but appears undeterred by his travails. When questioned by The Spectator about his dealings with Chambers, and various other issues, we were informed by his spokesman that: ‘The answers you seek are, a) already in the public domain except where they are b) none of Mr Galloway’s business or, c) none of your business.’
Galloway has been buoyed by the leftward tilt of his old party. Despite his leader-ship of Respect, he spent the summer demanding that he be readmitted to Labour, from which he was expelled in 2003 for calling for Arabs to rise up against British troops in Iraq and for British troops to disobey their orders. Many of Jeremy Corbyn’s team are believed to support his readmission: in particular, Galloway claims Corbyn’s press spokesman Seumas Milne is his ‘closest friend’ and that the two have spoken almost daily for 30 years.
Ken Livingstone recently stirred the pot by saying that ‘of course we should take him back’. Others, however, appear to have had their fill of his particular brand of psychodrama. Dawn Butler, the chair of the women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, warned of an ‘almighty revolt’ (particularly over his ‘ugly track record in opposing Labour women’) and said Corbyn had reassured her he wasn’t coming back. The Labour leader, for his part, tweeted approvingly after Galloway’s victory in 2012 — but has denounced his tactics in 2015 as ‘appalling’.
Of course, Galloway has shown a remarkable ability to bounce back — to dismiss his critics as Zionists and capitalists, to convince Muslim voters that Pakistan and Palestine matter more than Peckham and Putney. And he still has the megaphone offered by his Twitter account.
But a law of diminishing returns does set in. Galloway has no machine, no funding, and precious few friends. He takes endless Twitter potshots at Labour’s mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, accusing him last year of being ‘a rancid traitor to his faith and to any conceivable definition of Labour’ and more recently of supporting Corbyn ‘as the rope does the hanging man’. Yet the Khan team confirm that they consider him strategically irrelevant.
Galloway likes to consider himself a statesman and showman whose voice is heard around the world. But he’s more like Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter. Both are dazzling media performers who see the world largely through the prism of their own self-regard. Both are snappy dressers (Galloway’s passion for tailoring recently saw him acquire the lease on a vintage clothes shop in Portobello). And in both cases, the act eventually wears desperately thin.