Has George Galloway met his match in Bradford West?

Seasoned campaigner. Amy Murphy/PA

Hot Seats is a series in which academics report from the UK’s marginal constituencies. Parveen Akhtar is in Bradford West.

Labour has won Bradford West at every general election since 1974. But in 2012, Respect Party maverick George Galloway was swept into power with a 10,140-strong majority in a by-election called when Labour MP Marsha Singh stood down for health reasons.

Galloway received more votes than all the other candidates put together. He had overwhelming support among young people and women, who saw him as their ticket to a better Bradford. The local Labour Party was mired in clan politics and patronage, and Galloway promised an end to that.

His 2015 opponent, Naz Shah, campaigned and voted for Galloway in 2012, but claims she became disillusioned with his performance in office. She was selected as the parliamentary candidate by the local Labour Party after its first choice, Amina Ali, backed out of the seat 72 hours after being selected in an unhappy melée of local community and Labout Party in-fighting.

Naz Shah. Amy Murphy/PA

Shah caught the public imagination by writing about her difficult personal life. She grew up poor and at times destitute after her father left her pregnant mother and two children for the neighbours’ 16-year-old daughter. Shah was then sent to Pakistan by her mother, who feared for her safety; there, she was forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 15. Her mother, meanwhile, suffered abuse at the hands of another man, who she ended up poisoning to death.

Shah’s journey into politics is a far cry from the PPE-at-Oxford template of the traditional upper-middle-class career politician. With this powerful story and the Labour Party political machine behind her, she is Galloway’s only credible opponent in the election.

The clash

It was no surprise, then, that the first hustings at the Carlisle Business Centre in Bradford West attracted national and international media attention.

Galloway clearly saw himself as the main attraction. Proclaiming himself “an orator and parliamentary debater of note”, he certainly brought the soundbites. UKIP candidate Mohammed “Harry” Boota got it in the neck: “there’s something unnatural about a man like you standing for a party like UKIP. It’s like watching a bear dancing.” As for the Conservative Party candidate, George Grant, he was dismissed as “part of the toffs’ brotherhood”.

But Galloway was not entirely the centre of attention. Yes, the media was there because of him – but there was also serious interest in Shah. She came out swinging, referring to Galloway as the “absentee MP”. His response was equally fierce.

First, Galloway claimed that on February 22 2015, a day after failing to secure her selection as the Labour candidate in Bradford West, Naz Shah asked Respect if she could stand as their candidate in Bradford East. The second was that Shah had lied about the age at which she had been forced into a marriage in Pakistan.

Fighting on all fronts. Tim Green/Flickr, CC BY

Shah did not deny the defection claim; instead, she insisted that her suggestion had been made in jest, and that she had a whole Whatsapp conversation on hand to prove this. The issue of the marriage, however, has sparked furious exchanges between the camps – and threats of legal action.

Nobody could accuse Shah or Galloway of being scrupulously scripted and on-message at the hustings; both delivered dramatic performances. But the real surprise of the night came not from the prospective parliamentary candidates but the audience and their enthusiasm for real engagement.

The hall was full to capacity, with more than 250 people present, many of whom had to stand for the two-hour proceedings. Slips of paper with questions from the floor were piled high before the chair.

Many of them hinged on local concerns – in particular why Bradford schools are so good at being poor – but then there were the questions about disability and austerity, investment in business and innovation, and tuition fees. There were plenty of questions around international issues too: the banking crisis, radicalisation, Syria and the Middle East. “We want to hear about your policies,” Shah was told, while Galloway was quizzed about his voting record in parliament.

Dogged loyalists

Galloway still has a following in Bradford West, and, as he is fond of pointing out, it’s an international one: “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.”

But on April 13, former Respect councillor Mohammad Shabbir released a statement announcing that he had joined the Labour Group within Bradford council. He stated that “Respect (George Galloway) is a party of one and sadly it will remain so.”

Still, the “party of one” retains a loyal – and loud – band of followers. At the end of the first hustings, an apparent Respect supporter who had heckled from the side-lines throughout asked Naz Shah a question as she was leaving for the night:

“Who will be dancing in the streets if your party wins – the Israelis or the Palestinians?”

“Human beings will,” she replied.

“Your leader’s a bacon-eating Zionist!” came the reply.

Shah responded: “Half of England eats bacon. I can’t decide my policies by that.”