Mud flies as women's activist and maverick lawmaker face off in UK's wildest election race

Naz Shah is running for Parliament, but she is hardly a typical British politician. She grew up in poverty in a Pakistani-immigrant family, fled a teenage forced marriage and campaigned to free her mother, imprisoned for murder after poisoning an abusive partner.

Her rival, George Galloway, is a Scottish left-wing firebrand who has denounced U.S. senators, saluted Saddam Hussein and once appeared on a reality-TV show pretending to be a cat.

Anyone who thinks Britain's election is dull hasn't been to Bradford West, the campaign's wildest race, where debate ranges from local schools and services to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and high-flown rhetoric collides with character attacks.

Caught in the middle are residents of one of Britain's poorest areas, who desperately want a representative who will create jobs and revive a downtown dominated by vacant buildings and discount stores.

"Our city center is ruined," said car salesman Wahid Ali. "People used to come from all over to shop in Bradford. Now they run."

Bradford, 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of London, has had more ups and downs than the nearby Yorkshire Dales. The city is studded with the chimneys of 19th-century textile mills, fine civic buildings funded by Victorian-era manufacturing wealth — and crumbling structures left behind when industry declined and money ran short.

In the 20th century, the city's factories drew immigrants from South Asia — chiefly from Pakistan — who have made Bradford famous for its Asian restaurants, shops and bakeries. Almost a quarter of Bradford's population has roots in the Subcontinent, and in Bradford West it's even more.

Like many working-class communities, Bradford was long a Labour Party stronghold. Clan-based politics imported from Pakistan helped deliver solid bloc votes for approved Labour candidates.

That changed in 2012 when Galloway — a former Labour lawmaker who was expelled from the party for encouraging British soldiers not to fight in Iraq — won a special election with a campaign that attracted strong support from women, young voters and the Muslim community.

With typical bravado, Galloway branded his victory the "Bradford Spring."

That 2012 result can be seen as an early warning sign of the fracturing of British politics — a dominant factor in this election. The big Labour and Conservative parties — which both hope to win power on May 7 — are losing votes to anti-establishment upstarts, including Scottish nationalists and the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party.

"Working-class people have become disillusioned with Labour," said Jason Smith, UKIP candidate in the neighboring seat of Bradford South. "In Bradford West, they're looking towards George Galloway. In Bradford South, they're looking towards UKIP."

Galloway is nationally famous, and brings a dose of political celebrity to Bradford. Posters of his face are plastered across town, and he drives around in an open-topped double-decker bus decorated in the green and red of his Respect Party, blasting rap music.

Some of the big campaign issues here are the same as in the rest of Britain — the economy, housing, health care — but the race has a unique local flavor.

Galloway, 60, paints himself as the champion of the city's Muslim communities. He talks about local education, unemployment and his efforts to build a new shopping mall — but also about how he defied Israeli authorities and delivered aid to blockaded Gaza.

Labour hopes Galloway has met his match in Bradford-born Shah, who began her campaign by telling her remarkable life story in an article for a local newspaper. Shah, 41, described how her father abandoned the family in poverty when she was 6, how she was sent to Pakistan at 12, was married against her will at 15. And how she was left to care for her young siblings after her mother was jailed for murder.

Shah eventually left her husband, campaigned with women's groups to get her mother's sentence reduced, and built a career working for charities and Britain's health service.

She said she was running for office because "if I've learnt anything, I have learnt that through compassion we can change the world."

It didn't take long for the race to turn nasty. Galloway accused Shah of exaggerating her personal story. From Pakistan, he obtained a copy of her marriage certificate that he says shows Shah was 16, not 15, when she married. He called her account a "slander" on the Pakistani community.

Shah says she had two wedding certificates — one at 15 and one drawn up when she was 16, old enough for the union to be recognized in Britain. Others say her age hardly matters: A forced marriage is a forced marriage.

Labour has accused Galloway of breaking election law with his personal attacks, and police are investigating alleged smears of Shah on a website — though not one run by Galloway or his party.

Galloway denies resorting to dirty tricks.

"If you make your life story your election platform," he said, "you have to make sure you get your life story right."

Shah, in turn, has called Galloway an "absentee MP" — echoing critics who call him a showman, too busy with his media career to spend much time in his constituency or in Parliament. He has regular TV shows on Russia Today and Iran-backed Press TV, and for years hosted a national talk-radio program.

Millions in Britain also know him for his 2006 appearance on "Celebrity Big Brother," in which he performed interpretive dance and lapped imaginary milk while pretending to be a cat.

"I did support him last time, support him for the values that he has — but what he's done for Bradford I've got no idea," said Zahid Parvez, who runs a large bakery making naan bread, cakes and Asian sweets.

Galloway dismisses claims of absenteeism as "Labour propaganda."

"That's coming from the people who told you that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Iraq often comes up in conversations with Galloway, who has attracted controversy over his links to the late dictator Saddam Hussein. In 2005, he angrily denounced U.S. senators while appearing before a Washington committee that accused his political organization of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in U.N. oil-for-food allocations from Saddam.

During a visit to Iraq in 1994, Galloway was filmed telling Saddam, "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability."

The word that comes up most often in discussions about Galloway in Bradford is "divisive."

"We're a really diverse city, and we want someone who celebrates that and brings those communities together, not someone that runs a campaign that's about guarding one community," said Matthew Halliday, owner of the Bradford Brewery brew-pub, who recently had a Twitter spat with Galloway.

Bookmakers say Galloway is the narrow favorite to win, but there are signs some of his 2012 supporters are returning to Labour.

Shah said recently that voters should reject Galloway because "Bradford deserves better."

"We do not need a one-man Messiah to tell us how to come and fix up Bradford," she said. "We as a community have our own solutions."


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