George Galloway divides opinion in battle for Bradford West

George Galloway

If there is a building in Bradford West that symbolises the political and cultural battle for the constituency, it is perhaps the brand new pub on Westgate.

Across the road from the gold-topped domes of the central mosque and next door to the newest Asian bazaar, Bradford Brewery has set up shop right on the border between the centre and Manningham, one of the poorest areas of the city, where 75% of the population are Muslim.

Earlier this month, George Galloway got into a fight with the brewery, the latest in a long line of rows the political pugilist has waged locally since winning a 10,140 majority in a byelection in 2012. The pub started it, goading him with a tweet reading: “Are you still a thing @georgegalloway?” He did not take it well, telling them they had been “most unwise” as “a licensed premises in my constituency”. He then retweeted an account suggesting the local councillor responsible for licensing should shut the pub down, copying in West Yorkshire police to another missive. When the brewery invited him in for a coffee, he refused, saying “your premises are a constant source of complaints to me”.

Yet Bradford council said its licensing department had received no complaints about Bradford Brewery. And inside the bazaar, director Hassan Ali had nothing but praise for his neighbour. “We love ’em. They’re really good with us,” said Ali, when the Guardian visited on Wednesday. “Galloway is playing the Asian vote, isn’t he? He’s trying to get the Muslim vote.”

Sitting on the other side of the office, the bazaar’s manager, Adrian Patrick, chipped in: “What you’ve got to remember is that there were pubs around here long before there were mosques.”

Outside Bradford Brewery on Wednesday, Danny Parkinson, a 21-year-old radio producer, was smoking with a friend. Both had made a special trip to the brewery to show solidarity. Galloway had been “useless”, said Parkinson. “People thought he was going to bring optimism – since the election, nothing’s happened.” Propping up the bar on Sunday evening, four Sikh guys winced on hearing Galloway’s name. “The man’s a clown,” said one.

Yet down the hill and along Manningham Lane, in the steep streets leading down to Bradford City’s football ground, the name George Galloway provoked big smiles among many, even those who couldn’t speak more than a few words of English. “Good man,” said a bearded shopkeeper, sucking on an amber-coloured lollipop. “Good for community.”

But which community? Last week, Galloway decided to go on the offensive against Naz Shah, the Labour party candidate, by accusing her of lying about her forced marriage. He went to the trouble of ordering an intermediary in Pakistan to get hold of her nikah, an Islamic marriage certificate. Waving it at the hustings, he accused her of lying because his document suggested she had been 16 and not 15 when she claimed to have been “emotionally blackmailed” into marrying a cousin. The age difference mattered, he suggested to big cheers, because it “slandered” the Pakistani community and played into “every stereotype”. His spokesman later suggested Shah may not have been the victim of a forced marriage because her mother was at the ceremony.

Shah insists she was 15, providing a copy of what appears to be the nikah signed when she was 15 to the Guardian. But to many outside observers, it is irrelevant how old she was. Forced marriage is a crime however old the victim. And forced marriages are often arranged and attended by the parents.

At the hustings, Shah asked Galloway: “What has my nikah got to do with Bradford West? What have your four marriages got to do with Bradford West?” Inside the parallel universe of Bradford West, however, Galloway must believe that his information will win him votes.

Both have now reported each other to the director of public prosecutions over the marriage certificate row.

Galloway triumphed in 2012 with the help of an army of young followers, many first-time voters, and plenty of women, who were electrified by his anti-war, pro-Gaza, pro-Kashmir rhetoric. But many of the young idealists the Guardian met back then have long left the Respect fold, along with Salma Yaqoob, who quit the party and stepped down as leader after Galloway’s remarks about rape.

Salya Shaban, 21, a politics student at Bradford University and a fixture on Galloway’s open-top bus during the 2012 campaign, left Respect within six months of his election. She believes Galloway’s smears of Shah may gain, rather than lose, him votes, because of the marginalisation of minority groups within mainstream politics.

“It’s the whole idea of a white man speaking for the voiceless brown people,” she said. “If you’re from a minority group and feel like your rights are tramped on and the media is constantly depicting your people as barbaric terrorists who sexually and psychologically abuse their women, then of course you’re going to cling on to someone who appears to be defending your people. If minority groups had avenues to express their discontent they wouldn’t view Galloway as such a valuable asset and would speak for and defend themselves.”

The bookies think Galloway is set for a narrow victory – at Paddy Power the odds have lengthened on a Labour win, dropping from evens to 11-10, with Respect remaining odds-on favourite, at 8-11. After the byelection in 2012, some bookmakers declared it their worst byelection ever. They failed to predict Galloway’s landslide victory, despite odds shortening from 33-1 to 5-1 as polling day approached.

Bilal Ali, 26, wrote what became Galloway’s theme song, the Bradford Spring rap (sample lyric: “There’s this guy/He came into town/Took a look at Bradford/Had a look around/Realised we were sinking in a hole/Odeon, Westfield, that’s how it goes/More Jobs/Better schools/And he’s even getting rid of the ones breaking rules/He won as MP now he’s building a team – Heaton, Manningham, Fairweather Green”).

He stood up at the hustings to dismiss Galloway as “a travelling circus” and later called him a “useless one-man band”. Stage-right, a cluster of Respect supporters whooped and hollered – mostly, but not exclusively of Pakistani heritage. One elderly white man stood up to pledge his continued support for Galloway’s anti-war stance.

Shah likes to dismiss Galloway as an “absent MP”. Inside the bazaar, where she has a stall selling glittery shalwar kameez and ridiculously high heels, Irene Rehman, 35, said she had voted for Galloway in 2012 and “never again – the way he came in here with his big-bang promises. All he was bothered about was gaining power. With him, his motive was purely to get into the House of Commons. Once he’d become an MP, he was hardly seen.”

Others claim he was only visible when media’s cameras were present, particularly at demonstrations organised by the Muslim community, such as those defending Palestine or castigating Charlie Hebdo. (Shortly after Islamist fanatics shot dead journalists at the French satirical magazine, Galloway stood outside Bradford City Hall and declared it a “racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag”.)

Galloway denies the allegation of absenteeism, claiming at the hustings to have carried out 140 constituency surgeries and helped 4,000 constituents. He also claims credit for saving Bradford’s National Media Museum, pointing out that the Tory culture secretary, Ed Vaizey, congratulated him in parliament for securing a debate in the Commons on the museum’s future, and said Galloway had “behaved in an entirely constructive fashion on this issue”.

Galloway points out that when he was elected, the city centre was mired by what he called “the black hole”, a huge plot of land on which a Westfield shopping centre is now being built. Council officials insist Galloway can take no credit for the development: he disagrees.

But there is no doubt he has spent more time in the constituency in recent months than he has done in the three years since his election. Only in December last year did his team start producing a propaganda-filled freesheet called Bradford West Life. And whereas most of his speaking engagements in 2014 were in Scotland as he campaigned against independence, he has noticeably increased his appearances in Bradford in 2015.

He is unrepentant about spending so much time around the world on his lucrative media career – parliamentary records show in 2014 he earned almost £300,000 on top of his £67,000 MP’s salary, working for Russian, Iranian and Lebanese TV. Confronted at the hustings by a man who suggested Bradford deserved better, Galloway let rip.

Ignoring the issue of his extra-curricular earnings, he said: “My speeches in parliament are watched all over the world. May I suggest you go to YouTube, you’ll see speeches by me in parliament that have been watched hundreds of thousands in some cases millions of times. Im not sure that my Labour opponent will ever be able to say that. I am one of the senior parliamentarians in this country – that’s why the media are here, that’s why all these people are here, that’s why I believe I’ll be re-elected on 7 May.”

He added: “I think people want a person with international relations. They’re watching this contest from Manhattan to Gaza, from Mirpur to Baghdad. They’re watching the result of this election all over the world … I stand before you as someone who is recognised as a parliamentarian of note, as an orator and parliamentary debater of note and I’m putting myself at your disposal.”

Additional reporting by Andre Rhoden-Paul

Powered by article was written by Helen Pidd Northern editor, for The Guardian on Monday 13th April 2015 06.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010