George Galloway wins divisive Rochdale by-election

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George Galloway has won a divisive by-election contest in Rochdale with the firebrand politician threatening to inflame tensions in the UK parliament over Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

Galloway won 12,335 votes on a 37.6 per cent turnout in the northern English town and said his victory, by almost 6,000 votes, would “spark a movement” among voters.

“Keir Starmer, this is for Gaza,” said Galloway. “You have paid and you will pay a high price for the role you have played . . . covering for the catastrophe presently going on in occupied Palestine.”

The by-election, triggered by the death of Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd, has afforded the veteran Galloway his fourth stint in parliament and a platform to agitate against Labour following a difficult campaign for the party.

Labour selected Azhar Ali, a local councillor, to contest the seat but withdrew support from him after it was revealed that he had made a series of incendiary remarks about Israel and Palestine.

Ali, who apologised for the comments, remained on the ballot as Labour’s candidate because nominations had closed. He finished fourth in the by-election with 2,402 votes.

Joe Twyman of DeltaPoll told the BBC that the results represented a “very bad day for Keir Starmer”. “A Labour candidate was not sufficiently vetted, was found to be making remarks that were seen as antisemitic . . . that’s not a good argument,” he said.

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock told the BBC that the party took “rapid action” to withdraw support from Ali and that its “number one priority” was to select a strong candidate for the general election expected this year.

Simon Danczuk, who came sixth in the by-election running for Reform UK, previously served as the Labour MP for the seat but was sacked over sending sexually explicit photos.

A prominent anti-war politician and former Labour MP, Galloway was expelled from the party in 2003 over comments relating to the Iraq war. He stood for Rochdale as the Workers Party of Britain’s candidate.

Critics said the “macho” and divisive rhetoric of an all-male list of candidates fuelled the febrile atmosphere surrounding the Rochdale contest.

Richard Tice, leader of Reform, said that the contest had not been “free and fair” and that candidates had been subjected to abuse.

Galloway has twice before ousted a Labour MP while standing for a third party. On both occasions, in Bethnal Green in London and in Bradford in northern England, he ran on campaigns focused on his opposition to the Iraq war.

He finished third behind Labour in the Batley and Spen by-election in 2021, taking 8,264 votes, targeting Muslim voters in a seat where they make up around 20 per cent of the electorate.

Galloway’s Rochdale campaign sent letters to “voters of the Muslim faith” attacking Starmer and threatening to topple the Labour leader over his support for Israel.

About 30 per cent of Rochdale’s constituents are Muslim, according to 2021 census data.

Rochdale was the 22nd by-election since the 2019 general election, while the suspension of the former Tory MP for Blackpool South, Scott Benton, is expected to trigger another ballot in the coming months.

Labour won Rochdale at the last general election with a 9,668 vote majority on a 60 per cent turnout. The party had held the seat since 2010.

Galloway’s victory came in a week where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak alleged there was a “growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule” following months of pro-Palestine marches outside parliament.

House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle last week defended his handling of a chaotic vote about a ceasefire in Gaza as an effort to protect MPs.

“This is going to spark a movement, a landslide, a shifting of the tectonic plates, in scores of parliamentary constituencies,” Galloway said on Friday. “Yes it’s true that every Muslim is bitterly angry . . . but you would be very foolish [to think] that millions of other citizens aren’t too.”

Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, said that the circumstances surrounding the by-election had been unusual and it was difficult to envisage a scenario where it mobilised voters for other pro-Palestine candidates.

He added that while Galloway was an effective campaigner he did little to please constituents when previously elected. “He wasn’t re-elected in Bethnal Green or in Bradford. He’s a lightning rod for discontent, not a representative,” he said.

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