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George Galloway: The Rochdale MP and his Middle East history

The decades-long career of outspoken politician has been shaped by events in the region
President Saddam Hussein (R) meeting with British Labour MP George Galloway on 8 August 2002 in Baghdad, Iraq (AFP/INA)
President Saddam Hussein (R) meeting with British Labour MP George Galloway on 8 August 2002 in Baghdad, Iraq (AFP/INA)

George Galloway, a maverick politician, will return to UK parliament after winning a by-election in Rochdale dominated by the war on Gaza. 

Representing the Workers Party of Britain, he won almost 40 percent of the votes and nearly 6,000 more votes than his nearest rival in Thursday's poll. 

"Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak are two cheeks of the same backside and they both got well and truly spanked tonight here in Rochdale," he said upon victory, referring to the leaders of the UK's two main parties.

Galloway predominantly campaigned on the issue of Israel's war on Gaza, which has killed over 30,000 Palestinians. The UK government has refused to back a ceasefire, while the opposition Labour Party only backed a truce in recent days.

"There are millions of people in Britain that are revolted by our country's role - first of all, in the whole Palestinian tragedy in the first place, but [also] in our government and our opposition's support for [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's genocide," Galloway told Middle East Eye last week.

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His victory in Rochdale marks the latest contentious episode in a decades-long political career shaped by events in the Middle East and his controversial photocalls with some of the region's most notorious leaders.

Galloway's activism on Palestine began over five decades ago.

In 1980, he was involved in flying the Palestinian flag from the offices of Dundee Council, the area in Scotland where the politician grew up. He also successfully campaigned for Dundee to be twinned with the Palestinian city of Nablus. 

He was first elected to parliament as a Labour MP in Glasgow Hillhead in 1987. 

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During the early 1990s, he strongly opposed British involvement in the Gulf War, which was triggered after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. 

Years later, he would describe Kuwait as "clearly a part of the greater Iraqi whole stolen from the motherland by perfidious Albion".

In 1994, Galloway was criticised for meeting Saddam and telling him: "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability." He later stated that he had been praising the Iraqi people, rather than its leader.

In the 2000s, he was once again a fierce opponent of the US and British-led invasion of and subsequent war in Iraq. He met Saddam again for a second and final time in August 2002.

It was the issue of the Iraq war, in 2003, that would eventually get him expelled from Labour. 

Galloway was accused of bringing Labour into disrepute after stating that its leader, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and US President George Bush attacked Iraq "like wolves". The rebellious lawmaker also called on UK troops to "refuse to obey illegal orders". 

In May 2005, he gave evidence at a US senate committee on charges that Saddam's government gave him the rights to buy 20 million barrels of oil to sell at a profit.

He called the accusations the "mother of all smokescreens" to cover crimes committed by the US and its allies in Iraq, in a speech that garnered significant global media attention. 

The speech came days after he had returned to parliament in the 2005 general election, following a shock victory in East London's Bethnal Green and Bow constituency.

Representing the anti-war Respect party, he beat off Labour incumbent Oona King, who had previously voted in favour of the Iraq war. 

A year later, while still an MP, he appeared on Celebrity Big Brother, where he, infamously, dressed up in a leotard and pretended to be a cat. 

'I don't debate Israelis'

After failing to win a seat in the 2010 election, he won another by-election in 2012, in northern England's Bradford West constituency. 

Both Bradford and Bethnal Green and Bow have sizeable Muslim communities, leading to accusations Galloway deliberately targets Muslim areas to talk about issues such as Palestine.

In response, he told MEE last week: "I've been at the forefront of Palestine work in Britain for more than 50 years… I don't parachute anywhere to talk about Palestine. I've been talking about it all of my adult life."

Galloway caused a stir in 2013 after walking out of an event in Oxford University and stating: "I don't recognise Israel and I don't debate with Israelis."

'I don't parachute anywhere to talk about Palestine. I've been talking about it all of my adult life'

- George Galloway

The Israeli student he was due to debate was Elon Levy, who is now a senior spokesperson for the Israeli government.

In 2013, Galloway came under criticism after denying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces launched a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus. The attack was later confirmed by UN experts.

The British lawmaker had previously met Assad in Damascus in 2005.

He has since praised the authoritanian Syrian leader, last year writing on X: "I would have been proud to have stood by #Syria even if she had fallen. Watching the President #Assad towering in the #ArabLeague in #Jeddah has made me happy today."

In recent years, Galloway has worked for several TV networks, including Iranian-funded Press TV, Kremlin-owned Russia Today and Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen.

He lost his Bradford seat in 2015, during a bitter contest against Labour MP Naz Shah.

He later went on to campaign for the UK leaving the European Union, and hosted a show on TalkRadio between 2016 and 2019. He was subsequently sacked by the station over comments it deemed "antisemitic views".

Galloway had three more failed attempts at by-elections, in Manchester Gorton, West Bromwich East and Batley and Spen. 

His win on Thursday night in Rochdale means that he has now represented four different constituencies in parliament - equalling a record set by Winston Churchill. 

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