British by-elections have a habit of throwing up eccentric characters. But in the case of Batley and Spen and George Galloway, the contest has itself a pugilistic, bombastic, Ba’athist apologist whose entire career is a byword for controversy.
Galloway, who was a Labour MP from 1987-2003, has been on the political scene in Britain for almost 40 years. During that time he has said and done things that would have terminated the careers of almost any other politician. Perhaps most notoriously, in 1994 Galloway met Saddam Hussein – the Iraqi dictator presumably taking a break from having his opponents burned alive in acid baths. In the ensuing meeting, Galloway praised Saddam, “your excellency”, for his “courage”, “strength” and “indefatigability”.
Galloway would later describe himself as a supporter of the Ba’ath Party and the Iraqi people but not of Saddam personally. Yet his record when it comes to tyrants is long and varied. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union – which Galloway described as “the biggest catastrophe of my life” – the Dundonian has scoured the world for an absolute ruler to fill the space in his mind once occupied by the geriatric occupants of the Kremlin.
For a short while Galloway appeared to have found that person in Saddam. “Just as Stalin industrialised the Soviet Union, so on a different scale Saddam plotted Iraq’s own Great Leap Forward,” wrote Galloway in his autobiography. Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party during the Iraq war in 2003 after calling on British troops to “refuse to obey illegal orders”.
In the years after Saddam was deposed, Galloway’s “search for a tyrannical fatherland”, as the late Christopher Hitchens once phrased it, continued. Galloway heaped praise on the Iranian despot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Iranian-run Press TV. He lauded the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, and the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. He also found time to write an obsequious book about the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro – one of the few foreign books you can purchase in Cuba.
Few expect Galloway to win in Batley and Spen on 1 July, where he is standing for election six years after losing his seat as Respect MP in Bradford West to Labour’s Naz Shah (a contest during which he accused Shah of lying about her sexually abusive forced marriage when she was 15 years old).
Yet Galloway’s main goal in Batley and Spen appears to be to damage the incumbent Labour Party by eroding its support base. An unashamed champion of former party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Galloway is gunning for Corbyn’s successor. “If Keir Starmer loses this by-election it’s curtains for Keir Starmer,” he declared in a recent campaign video posted online.
Galloway’s electoral strategy is characteristically opportunistic. Rhetoric around “Zionism” sits incongruently alongside invective aimed at winning over socially conservative working-class voters. The latter, Galloway recently tweeted, are fed up of “anti-Brexit woke liberal identity-politics [and] cancel-culture mania”.
Yet despite his long-standing public image as a firebrand left-winger, Galloway has never been “woke”. He voted for Brexit in 2016 and embraced Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon a few years later. Galloway holds what are euphemistically called “old-fashioned views”. He opposes abortion and caused a storm of controversy in 2012 after commenting that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who at the time was wanted on charges of rape in Sweden, had merely engaged in “bad sexual etiquette”. “Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion,” Galloway added.
Nevertheless, Labour strategists are reportedly worried about Galloway’s appeal to Batley’s sizeable Muslim population through his rhetoric on Palestine and Kashmir. This is remarkable, in a sense, considering Galloway’s long-standing admiration for various dictatorships, some of which are ruthlessly persecuting their Muslim populations. To take one example, in 2020 as reports were emerging that upwards of a million Uyghur Muslims were being persecuted in Xinjiang, Galloway went on Russian state television to claim that there were “no concentration camps in China”.
He may be adept at pseudo-radical posturing, but Galloway’s politics are simultaneously hypocritical, unpleasant and outmoded. As if to underscore the second point, the deputy leader of Galloway’s new “Workers Party” is Joti Brar, vice-chair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), a far-left groupuscule notorious even on the British revolutionary left for its uncritical support of North Korea and the Stalin-era Soviet Union.
But there is also something remarkably contemporary about George Galloway. His politics may be antiquated but his longevity is a testament to the sheer persuasive appeal of bluster and rhetoric. Whatever else might be said about the man, he can certainly be eloquent.
It is said that we live in a populist age. Perhaps, then, we should have paid more attention to this puffed-up, fedora-sporting demagogue during our 40-year exposure to him. Had we done so, we might have been better prepared for the arrival of a new generation of populist blowhards before they were able to cause so much chaos.
[see also: Populism without the people]