It seemed at first like it would be a coronation. Touring Bradford West on an open top bus dressed in his trademark black fedora, dark glasses and triumphant grin, George Galloway was acting on Thursday as though he had already won.
But the picture was different by Friday morning. At the count in Bradford’s Richard Dunn leisure centre, Galloway’s Respect party supporters had evaporated from the hall by midnight when rumours that he might lose his seat to his Labour opponent Naz Shah reached fever pitch.
An early exit poll suggested Galloway had won, but just as Conservatives voters across the country had shown chronic shyness to the pollsters, so it appeared Labour supporters fed up with Galloway but fearful of the Respect machine, may have kept their opinions to themselves.
In what was one of the few good news stories for Labour of 2015, the party’s candidates and campaigners were buoyant at Bradford West, as well as the city’s East and South seats.
After thanking her supporters in her victory speech, Shah made a pointed assessment of Galloway’s conduct on the campaign, saying: “I thank all my opponents, with the exception of one, who all convicted themselves really deeply to, and fought to be elected on, issues and and in the spirit of friendly rivalry. To Mr Galloway I say that your campaign demeaned our democracy but personal attacks on me have not worked. The people of Bradford West have seen through this and you have been sent on your way.”
After admitting she was not “a career politician,” Shah gave special thanks to her Conservative opponent George Grant “for his very public condemnation of the vile attacks against me” and Tory peer, Saeeda Warsi who she said had “spoken up as a Muslim women who is also in politics and that has meant a great deal to me.”
Galloway was the last to reach the stage as the results were announced. His face was taught as the numbers were read out: he won just 8,557 votes to Shah’s 19,977. After winning with a more than 10,000 margin in the by-election, this time he barely beat the Conservative candidate, who had 6,160.
In a bizarre speech after Shah’s, Galloway said “I don’t begrudge the Labour members here their moment of celebration of course. But there will be others who are already celebrating: the venal, the vile, the racists and the zionists will all be celebrating. The hyena can bounce on the lion’s grave but it can never be a lion and in any case, I’m not in my grave. As a matter of fact I’m going off now to plan the next campaign.”
In a further twist, it emerged that Galloway was reported to the police on Thursday afternoon for a possible contravention of the law preventing the early publication of exit polls. Galloway reposted Twitter a message saying “early exit polls suggest 2 votes for @georgegalloway to every 1 for @nazshah”. It was not clear that such an exit poll even existed and the account it came from was taken down. Galloway later deleted the tweet.
In response to the suggestion that Galloway broke the law by posting about an exit poll, his spokesman texted a one word reply: “yawn”.
He called his 2012 by-election win the Bradford Spring. But this time Galloway’s battle for Bradford West was more of a fist fight - and it appeared the tactics had backfired.
In one of the scrappiest campaigns of the election, the Respect candidate made repeated personal attacks on Shah. He promised it would be a “clean fight”, but his supporters were accused of beating up a Jewish journalist trying to report on a Respect rally - as well as leaving a dead crow on Ms Shah’s doorstep and smearing her reputation.
A spokesman for Galloway denied their tactics had been underhand. “Shah has made it personal from the beginning,” he said, adding: “She hasn’t told the truth and she’s told untruths about George.”
The tactics seemed to do little to put off Galloway’s core voters, who were out in force on polling day, their cars covered in red and green posters. But in the early hours of this morning Bradford looked set for a “red surge,” as one Labour campaigner put it.
Despite potentially being relatively unknown - and despite being chosen as the Labour candidate just a few months before the election, Shah benefited from long-held loyalties to Labour in the city.
Nahida Parveen, 35, standing outside the polling station in Manningham ward in the north of the constituency, said she was voting Labour because she “always has.” She admitted to knowing almost nothing about the candidate but said: “I’m just sticking with them.”
For some, however, a distaste for Galloway was not enough to vote for Shah. Nabib Hussein, 32, said: “I’m not voting. My polling card is still in the car. It’s all about clan in Bradford and I’m sick and tired of it. Galloway is taking Asians for a ride
Bradford West is dominated by the politics of biraderi - kinship-based bloc voting that is traditional in Pakistan and has been adopted by some British Pakistanis. When Galloway won the by-election in 2012 it was supposedly by rejecting this system and appealing to young voters. But now his supporters admit it is useful to them.
Back in 2012 Galloway beat Labour’s Imran Hussein, who was supported by a clan which held sway over the local Labour party. Hussein was expected to win in the neighbouring seat of Bradford East. He was seen embracing Galloway three times at a recent event in the Pakistani Consulate and was unopposed by the Respect Party in what is understood to be a clan agreement.
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