Who is George Galloway? Past controversies of Rochdale by-election favourite

The political firebrand who shot to prominence during the Iraq war and secured infamy with a bizarre Big Brother appearance is gunning for a return to Parliament.

George Galloway gives a speech after being declared winner Rochdale Leisure Centre in the Rochdale by-election, which was triggered after the death of Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd. Picture date: Thursday February 29, 2024.
George Galloway gives a speech after being declared winner Rochdale Leisure Centre in the Rochdale by-election, which was triggered after the death of Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd. Picture date: Thursday February 29, 2024.
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George Galloway has won a resounding victory in the Rochdale by-election following a chaotic campaign that saw Labour's vote collapse amid controversy of the Gaza conflict.

In his victory speech, Galloway began by focusing on Palestine - as it had in his campaign - saying: “Keir Starmer, this is for Gaza. You have paid, and you will pay, a high price for the role that you have played in enabling, encouraging and covering for the catastrophe presently going on in occupied Palestine in the Gaza Strip.”

Starmer has been criticised by many on the left what they perceive as his equivocal stance on the Gaza conflict and his reluctance to call for an immediate ceasefire until recently.

He said he would put Rochdale councillors “on notice” that he intended to form a “grand alliance” to “clean the town hall up” at the local elections in May.

After he was interrupted by a heckler accusing him of being a “climate change denier”, and confetti was thrown at him, he went on to pledge to campaign for the return of a maternity ward to Rochdale and to help save the town’s troubled football club.

His majority of 5,697 votes amounted to 18.3% of the total, on a turnout of 39.7%, a little higher than the two recent by-elections in Wellingborough and Kingswood.

The surprise runner-up was David Tully, a local businessman and independent candidate, who secured more than 6,600 votes.

The Rochdale campaign has been mired in controversy and claims of intimidation and divisive tactics.

Labour withdrew support for its candidate, Azhar Ali, after a recording emerged in which he claimed Israel was complicit in the terrorist attacks of October 7, seeing Mr Galloway become the firm favourite for the seat.

Mr Ali remained listed as the Labour candidate as the party’s decision came too late for ballot papers to be changed.

A Labour spokesperson said: “We deeply regret that the Labour party was unable to field a candidate in this by-election and apologise to the people of Rochdale. George Galloway only won because Labour did not stand.

“Rochdale deserved the chance to vote for an MP that would bring communities together and deliver for working people. George Galloway is only interested in stoking fear and division. As an MP he will be a damaging force in our communities and public life.

“The Labour Party will quickly begin the process to select a new Labour candidate for the general election, and will be campaigning hard to deliver the representation and fresh start that Rochdale deserves.”

Reform UK’s leader Richard Tice claimed his candidate, former Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk, had received a death threat during the campaign and said his party’s campaign team had been subject to “daily intimidation and slurs”.

Recriminations continued after polls closed, with Mr Tice alleging to the PA news agency that “menacing behaviour” had featured throughout the campaign and questioning the validity of the postal ballots returned during the contest.

He said: “This by-election and result should act as a serious wake-up call to those in power and indeed to the entire electorate

Controversial politician George Galloway has emerged as the bookies’ favourite to be named Rochdale’s next MP following a chaotic by-election campaign.

Galloway, a former Labour and Respect Party MP, now leads the Workers Party of Britain and has set his sights on another return to parliament.

To say the contest has been be chaotic would be an understatement. Labour, which is defending the seat following the death of the sitting MP in January, withdrew support for its candidate, Azhar Ali, over remarks suggesting Israel was complicit with the massacre of its own people on 7 October.

The implosion of Ali’s campaign has meant Galloway, who is heavily campaigning on the Palestinian cause and Gaza, has been able to appeal to many of Rochdale’s Muslim population.

Elsewhere, the Reform Party candidate is Simon Danczuk – another former Labour MP who was suspended by the party after sending explicit messages to a 17-year-old girl in 2016. He has also been the subject of an alleged death threat. Meanwhile, the Green Party withdrew support for its candidate days after putting him forward after old social media posts came to light.

So, while the likely winner is hard to determine, Galloway is certainly in the mix. Here, Yahoo News UK breaks down Galloway’s career and controversies…

Workers party of Britain candidate George Galloway speaks to PA Media in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, ahead of the Rochdale by-election, which was triggered by the death of Sir Tony Lloyd. Picture date: Friday February 16, 2024.
George Galloway is the leader of the Workers Party of Britain. (PA)

Galloway on Gaza conflict

Galloway spoke openly about his feelings on the Gaza war throughout the by-election campaign and described Israel as an “apartheid” state. Campaign rallies have seen supporters chant ‘From the river to the sea’ – a phrase regarded as antisemitic by some.

However, Galloway refutes that it is antisemitic, and defended the right of those to chant it in a “free country”. He said this week: “I’m in favour of a democratic state for Jews, Muslims and Christians between the river and the sea. You may not like that, others may not like that. But that’s what I believe, and we’ll see if people vote for it.

“I’m concerned about the blood and flesh that’s being torn apart in Gaza. The feelings someone might have in England about me using the words, ‘River to the sea’ are of much less importance than that.”

Galloway has denied donating money to Hamas, a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK, insisting this week that he gave “money, ambulances, wheelchairs, medicine, food, children’s clothes, teddy bears to the 1.6 million Palestinian people under siege in Gaza”.

ROCHDALE, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 20: Workers party of Britain candidate George Galloway greets members of the public whilst canvassing in the Rochdale by-election on February 20, 2024 in Rochdale, England. Galloway, a former Labour and Respect Party MP, now represents the Workers Party of Britain, and is trying to capitalise on the implosion of the Labour Party's campaign in Rochdale, after the party withdrew support for its candidate following controversial remarks about the Israel-Hamas war. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
George Galloway has made several statements about the war in Gaza. (Getty)

Several Jewish groups have criticised Galloway. Daniel Sugarman, director of public affairs for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote on X prior to the result, that Galloway was “perhaps the most hideous individual in politics".

The Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) has said it is “extremely concerned” about how George Galloway will use his platform after winning the Rochdale by-election.

A spokesperson for the CAA told Yahoo News: “George Galloway has an atrocious record of baiting the Jewish community.

“He has previously and infamously declared Bradford an ‘Israel-free zone’. He said of his previous election loss that ‘the venal, the vile, the racists and the Zionists will all be celebrating’ [in 2015].

“[His claimed that the institutional antisemitism within the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn was really ‘a disgraceful campaign of Goebbelsian fiction’, in reference to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propagandist.

“Recently he has described the atrocity carried out by Hamas on October 7 as a ‘concentration camp breakout’ and referred to Hamas terrorists as ‘fighters’.

“Mr Galloway has now been chosen by the voters of Rochdale to represent them and is once again an MP. 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.”

A spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism echoed these concerns, telling Yahoo News: "George Galloway is an inflammatory firebrand with an atrocious record of baiting the Jewish community."

"He has previously and infamously declared Bradford an 'Israel-free zone', said of his previous election loss that 'the venal, the vile, the racists and the Zionists will all be celebrating', and was sacked by TalkRadio in connection with allegedly antisemitic views.

Galloway was cleared by police over his Bradford comments after an investigation. He has also vociferously denied making antisemitic comments in the past. In 2008, he won a libel action against the Jewish station Jcom Radio after a presenter played a spoof character that indicated he was antisemitic. He also strongly denied holding antisemitic views or making comments that contributed to such views during an appearance on Question Time in 2015.

MP George Galloway. LONDON S TRAFALGAR SQUARE 11 February 2006 Over 5 000 UK Muslims demonstrate against incitement Islamophobia
George Galloway has had several stints as an MP throughout his political career. (PA)

Galloway's previous stints as MP

Should Galloway become the MP for Rochdale on Thursday, he will have several years' experience of serving in Westminster in the past to draw on. He was first elected as an MP for Labour in the 1987 general election, representing the Glasgow Hillhead constituency, which later became the Glasgow Kelvin constituency, until 2005.

However, he was expelled from Labour in 2003 for bringing the party into disrepute. Galloway served in the same constituency as an independent MP until he joined the Respect party a year later.

Galloway decided not to stand for re-election in Glasgow Kelvin in the 2005 general election and instead became the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, for the Respect Party. He served in parliament for the full term but opted not to contest the seat in the 2010 general election.

But Galloway was not away from the Commons for long – he won the Bradford West by-election in 2012, but lost the seat in the 2015 general election. Following unsuccessful campaigns to become an MP in 2017 and 2019, Galloway went on to found the Workers Party of Britain five years ago. An attempt to become the MP for Batley and Spen in 2021 failed – but he is now attempting to win in Rochdale.

The 31st G8 Summit 2005 was held in the Gleneagles Hotel 6-8 jULY 2005.- Photo of George Galloway in Auchterarder Scotland a witness to the protests
George Galloway was sacked from TalkRadio over comments he made about Israel and Tottenham Hotspur. (Alamy)

Controversy on TalkRadio

In 2019 Galloway was sacked from a presenting role on TalkRadio over a tweet about Tottenham Hotspur’s defeat at the hands of Liverpool in the semi-finals of the Champions League. While congratulating Liverpool fans for their victory, Galloway wrote: “No Israel flags on the cup!”

Galloway said he wrote the tweet after seeing Tottenham fans flying the flag of Israel in the crowd at the game. He said that amounted to showing “an affiliation to a racist state”.

Tottenham accused Galloway of “blatant antisemitism” and the row resulted in TalkRadio sacking him. The broadcaster said that it “does not tolerate antisemitic views”.

In 2020, TalkRadio were fined £75,000 for failing to maintain due impartiality on three occasions in Galloway’s shows. The shows were dealing with the Salisbury poisoning and allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party.

Regulators Ofcom said that when audience contributions about the Skripal poisoning differed from Galloway’s position, he joked that the listeners who had sent in their messages were in Broadmoor psychiatric hospital. Ofcom previously found that Galloway breached broadcasting rules by presenting allegations of antisemitism in Labour as a concocted means to criticise then-party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 29:  Respect MP George Galloway attends a protest in front of the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre on January 29, 2010 in London, England. Mr Blair, who was Britain's Prime Minister from May 1997 to June 2007, will face questions from Chairman of the Inquiry Sir John Chilcot. This is the United Kingdom's fourth inquiry into the Iraq war. Intelligence officials, senior civil servants, politicians and military commanders have given evidence so far on January 29, 2010.  (Photo by Marco Secchi/Getty Images)
Comments about the Iraq way resulted in George Galloway being suspended from the Labour Party. (Getty)

Galloway said Ofcom should be "investigated for this quite scandalous waste of public money purchased by a single complainant".

A TalkRadio representative said: "You expect robust opinions from George Galloway but we accept that on this occasion he crossed the line.

Why he was suspended by Labour

Galloway’s suspension from Labour in 2003 came following his public and prominent opposition to the Iraq war. Already active in the anti-war movement as the vice president of the Stop the War Coalition, Galloway was a strident critic of the government for its role in the conflict.

His opposition to the war saw Galloway openly speak out against not just the conflict, but also his party leader and prime minister at the time, Tony Blair. Galloway said Blair had “lied” to British forces by saying the war would be quick and easy, while also saying Blair and then-US president George W Bush “attacked Iraq like wolves”.

Galloway also urged British troops to “refuse to obey to illegal orders”. This particular line was one of the formal reasons given for Galloway’s expulsion from Labour.

In an interview with The Sun, Blair described Galloway’s comments as “disgraceful and wrong”. Galloway stood by his comments and described the decision to expel him as a “political show trial”. He added: "This was a politically motivated kangaroo court whose verdict had been written in advance.”

George Galloway drank imaginary milk out of Rula Lenska’s hands on Celebrity Big Brother. (Channel 4)
George Galloway drank imaginary milk out of Rula Lenska’s hands on Celebrity Big Brother. (Channel 4)

Galloway on Big Brother

While Galloway has been no stranger to controversy on more serious matters, perhaps one of his most bizarre moments came in 2006, when he appeared as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother. Politicians on reality shows was not a common occurrence at the time, so his appearance was already one of the series’ big talking points.

During one of the show’s tasks, Galloway was paired up with actress Rula Lenska and the pair were told to act out a scenario of a cat and its owner. Lenska took the role of the owner, so it was left to Galloway to be the cat.

What unfolded was a bizarre sight that has become one of the most famous moments in Big Brother history. Purring and licking his lips while he was on all fours, Galloway drank imaginary milk from Lenska’s hands. It made reality show history and while Galloway still holds political ambitions, it is his stint on Celebrity Big Brother that is perhaps the one that will always follow him around.

Yahoo News UK has contacted George Galloway for a comment.

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