Those in Britain who complain that their politicians tend to be mealy-mouthed mediocrities who spend their lives battling over the middle ground are being compelled to think again.
One of the country’s most fiesty political brawlers, George Galloway, has once again sprung back into the political ring by unexpectedly securing a return to parliament, long after most pundits had written him off.
By-elections in Britain often produce unpredictable results, but Galloway’s resounding victory Thursday in the northern English city of Bradford will go down in history as one of the biggest shocks of all. His new constituency — Bradford West — has been a comfortable Labour Party (or Labour as it’s spelled in the U.K.) seat since Harold Wilson was in No. 10, Downing Street, well before anyone outside England had heard of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative who became prime minister in 1979.
The result is particularly embarrassing for Labour. The party does not expect to lose seats when it is in opposition, let alone to be routed. Galloway secured 10,000 more votes than the Labour runner-up.
His landslide marks the return to the House of Commons of one of the most tenacious pugilists in British politics. In 2003, Labour — then in government — expelled Galloway because of his fierce opposition to the invasion of Iraq. As co-founder of Respect, a fringe anti-war party, Galloway continues to call for Labour’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes.
Galloway has exacted revenge for his expulsion before, by winning a safe Labour seat in London in 2005. But his political fortunes later waned, prompting observers to assume that, at 57, he was destined to spend the rest of his career as a minor talk show host.
As Galloway celebrates what he is calling the “Bradford Spring” — a reference to the uprisings against Arab dictatorships — Britain’s political pundits are trying to work out why they were caught napping so spectacularly.
It is generally believed he secured widespread support within Bradford’s large Muslim population, partly through his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also by promising to oppose any move to go to war with Iran.
Many people have tended to dismiss Galloway as a maverick and also an eccentric, especially after he featured on the TV reality show Big Brother, dressed as a cat. But analysts within and outside government will now be eager to establish the meaning of Galloway’s victory — and whether it might signal that significant numbers of disaffected British Muslims have begun turning their backs on the political mainstream.
Conclusions will be difficult, as it is hard to determine the role played by Galloway’s personal attributes. He is a formidable campaigner, a combative, charismatic Scot who can devastate his opponents in an argument, as a U.S. Senate committee found out when it summoned Galloway to discuss allegations — that he has always denied, and have never been proven — about receiving kickbacks from the U.N.’s Oil for Food Program in Iraq during the Saddam era. Galloway turned the tables on senators with a scathing indictment of U.S. policy in Iraq, delivered flawlessly and without notes.