Hello, Bradford! George Galloway rides into town with big promises

From storming the town hall to finding an Arab buyer for the city's football team, Jonathan Brown listens to an audacious agenda

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Indy Politics

There is no shortage of challenges facing George Galloway in Bradford, the city where he spectacularly snatched by-election victory from Labour two weeks ago. But even his unbridled self-belief is realistic when it comes to some things.

"I am not saying Sergio Aguero will be playing at Valley Parade, but a lower order Sheikh interested in buying a football club in a nice city with a large number of his co-religionists in it – that's not a bad proposition," he says.

Mr Galloway says he is using his contacts in the Middle East to find a potential buyer for Bradford City FC (striker Craig Fagan, pictured), currently in all sorts of trouble and propping up the second division.

He has also got involved in attempts to save the Bradford Bulls rugby league side another once-mighty sporting institution tottering on the edge of financial oblivion.

For many, the decline of the two sides is symptomatic of the fall of the city itself. Yet Mr Galloway insists he is not carving a personal political power base out of Bradford's "failed" state.

However, since toppling Labour's majority to win by 10,000 votes he has moved the headquarters of his Respect party to the city from Manchester.

He is campaigning hard for a yes vote on the forthcoming mayoral election, after which he expects an ally to stand and win. Meanwhile he confidently predicts that Respect will hold the balance of power in the city come the 3 May council elections.

"It would not be possible to have a hostile takeover of a city. But we hope to persuade people that we are the new broom that will sweep clean the fetid corridors of power at Bradford City Hall," he says.

Two weeks into his self-proclaimed Bradford Spring, Mr Galloway is preparing to take his seat in Parliament on Monday when he will match Churchill's record of winning six elections in four different constituencies.

Meanwhile he has been up and down the M1 half a dozen times, planning his strategy from the back rooms of a local solicitor's office and sleeping over at the small back-to-back he bought in the city seven years ago when it provided support for his convoys to Gaza.

Mr Galloway describes himself as a long-standing fan of Bradford's elegant if crumbling Victorian architecture and its people. An unfortunate post-victory tweet emanating from his campaign and referring to Blackburn was the result of a malicious hack, he insists. However much his pro-Arab message clearly resonated with Bradford's Muslim voters – currently numbering four out of ten of the local population – and at the university, he concedes that there are urgent and pressing needs closer to home: namely jobs and poverty.

Youth unemployment has tripled in a year in Bradford, rising 40 per cent in the past 12 weeks, he says. Schools in the authority are currently ranked 145th out of 155 in the education league tables while a giant hole in the city centre, dug back in 2006, is at least two years from being filled by a new shopping centre.

While Mr Galloway admits there is little he can do to persuade a powerful multinational to get on with the job, he wants to know why a city would demolish its own centre without firm guarantees.

He is promising a "US-Senate plus" conversation with Bradford's director of education – a reference to his famously confrontational showdown with Washington lawmakers. And he says he has a score to settle with Bradford's chief executive and returning officer over the running of the election.

The former Celebrity Big Brother star has undeniably injected a sense of energy in the city. Immaculately dressed and with his trademark tan, he is hooted by young men who drive past while he stops to shake hands with people in the street.

A Japanese journalist is here to see what the fuss is about. Mr Galloway tells him his priority for the day is meeting a delegation seeking to save the under-threat Odeon cinema, a city landmark earmarked for demolition. He hopes to raise money to turn it into a new cultural quarter alongside its neighbours, the historic Alhambra theatre and the thriving National Media Museum.

These are all grandiose plans. But George Galloway believes Bradfordians can succeed again – if given the opportunity. "Ambition springs mightily in young people – the question is, are we going to allow that ambition to be dashed?" he asks. "This city has the youngest population in Britain. And by 2020 Bradford will be the youngest city in Europe with 50 per cent of the population under 25."

Mr Galloway insists that race relations in the city are stable and set to improve, although he concedes that white and Asian communities continue to live largely separate lives.

Perhaps bringing his own insider knowledge of reality TV to bear, he says: "Those Channel 4 chaps who set up the programme Make Bradford British were somewhat confounded by the relative amity between sections of society here that they would have expected to be poles apart."