It was described as a 'big shock' for Labour. But others saw it coming

As the local election results were coming through in Manchester last week, one place in particular was getting all the attention.

Longsight is usually safe Labour territory. But voters say the atmosphere in the area during the election felt different this year.

The jostling around the table where the votes were being counted on Friday (May 10) followed weeks of intense campaigning on the ground. George Galloway - who was looking to oust Labour's deputy leader - visited regularly and led rallies.

READ MORE: Warning shot fired to Labour at Greater Manchester's local elections

In the end, the Workers Party of Britain claimed the scalp they were seeking as Shahbaz Sarwar was elected. Labour's Luthfur Rahman lost by 185 votes. But in an exclusive interview with the M.E.N., Manchester council's former deputy leader claims that the competition he faced was 'not fair'.

The former councillor, who was first elected in the ward 16 years ago, claims the shock result was partly due to a ‘protest vote’ against his party’s perceived stance on the war in Gaza. But the 47-year-old has told the M.E.N. this alone was ‘not enough’ to unseat him.

Local election posters in Longsight
Local election posters in Longsight -Credit:Manchester Evening News

Mr Rahman accused the Workers Party of running a 'divisive' campaign in which he claims misinformation was spread on social media and voters were subject to 'intimidation' at polling stations. The Workers Party 'wholly dispute' these allegations, dismissing them as 'sour grapes'.

The party said intimidation is 'unacceptable', claiming that campaigners were not instructed to 'descend' on Longsight on May 2.

However, several sources have told the M.E.N. that large groups of people were seen gathered around some polling stations on election day.

On the streets of Longsight, one voter told the M.E.N. that they had been approached by a number of people telling them to give their vote to Shahbaz Sarwar. “It was unusual, there was some provocation,” the person, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

“My husband faced that. He said it’s my vote and I should vote for whoever I like.

“I am not happy, I expected Labour to win. They are a renowned party. Everybody is fed up with the Conservatives, including me.

“I thought it would be a win-win situation for Labour. I was surprised and shocked."

Longsight Market
Longsight Market -Credit:Manchester Evening News

But other voters told the M.E.N. that when they arrived at polling stations on Thursday (May 2) they faced no such intimidation. “No intimidation,” one voter said. “I went with my missus. I was explaining to her and I was told the rules saying I cannot talk inside.

“I think the bigger parties are not showing up, especially with Gaza. A lot of Muslim communities have backed Labour for years and they feel like they’ve been stabbed in the back. My family voted Labour for 20 years but now we all voted differently.”

Another voter said they had seen no evidence of intimidation and claimed that Mr Rahman’s election defeat was ‘because of Palestine.’

“It’s a big issue. I feel like George Galloway is in favour of Palestine and the Muslims love voting for him,” they said.

But Mr Rahman believes ‘false allegations’ made against him during the campaign could have contributed to his ultimate defeat.

Speaking to the M.E.N., a number of voters said that they were told that Mr Rahman, who is of Bengali heritage, 'does not like Pakistanis'. One woman told the M.E.N. that she saw 'lies' spread on social media.

Luthfur Rahman , Longsight Labour . Manchester Local Elections 2024 . Mamchester Central . 3 May 2024
Mr Rahman lost his seat by a narrow margin -Credit:Sean Hansford | Manchester Evening News

In one social media post seen by the M.E.N, the ex-councillor was accused of assaulting an Imam at a mosque.

The allegation refers to an incident at a mosque in Rusholme over a decade ago which saw Mr Rahman and four other men accused of punching and kicking a man in the prayer hall. Mr Rahman and his co-defendants were acquitted after their trial was cut short in 2010.

During the electoral campaign, another Longsight councillor was caught up in a row outside the Iqra Mosque in Longsight. A video circulating on social media days before the election claimed that Labour councillors were 'bullying and intimidating' a pro-Palestinian supporter.

However, Coun Abid Chohan, who is seen shouting in the video, claims he was calling out a racist remark he heard while outside the mosque. The Workers Party dismissed allegations of racism on the part of its campaigners as 'gutter smears that have no substance'.

Video of Labour councillor Abid Chohan arguing with George Galloway's Workers Party of Britain outside Iqra Mosque in Longsight, Manchester. April 26, 2024
Videos of Labour councillor Abid Chohan arguing outside a mosque in Longsight were shared on TikTok -Credit:TikTok: @y.a.s_q

"It's very difficult to maintain your dignity and compete with something like that because we didn't stoop to that level," Mr Rahman said. "We didn't go counter-attacking or produce any counter-negative narrative about the individual or the party. We refrained from that."

Newly-elected councillor Shahbaz Sarwar beat the deputy council leader after securing 2,444 votes. Mr Rahman received 2,259 votes - around 500 less than the last time he stood in 2021.

But he said the increased turnout in the ward - which was up by 14 percentage points compared to the year before - was a 'big shock'. He claims that Mr Galloway's party targeted his seat, in part, because they wanted a 'big scalp'.

Ahead of the election, the Rochdale MP said that his party would treat the local election in Longsight like a by-election for a seat in Parliament. Mr Rahman said the contest felt like 'an amplified version' of a parliamentary vote with many campaigners on the ground.

In an interview with the M.E.N following the result in Longsight, Mr Galloway said: “We were concentrating on Longsight for obvious reasons - it was the emblematic contest.

“We kind of neglected our candidates in the other wards, I haven't seen the result in Whalley Range or the one or two others we stood in.

“We are extraordinarily proud of our candidates, the results they've pulled, and the voters who gave us their trust."

George Galloway joined Shahbaz Sarwar in Manchester to celebrate on Friday (May 3)
George Galloway joined Shahbaz Sarwar in Manchester to celebrate on Friday (May 3) -Credit:Sean Hansford

Mr Rahman recognises that there was a 'protest vote' relating to the war in Gaza, but said that the local party was 'very clear' in its calls for a ceasefire in October. He said his party, which is now calling for a ceasefire too, has 'listened and responded fairly quickly'.

"I don't think the protest vote was enough for me to lose the seat," he said. "I think there were other factors that contributed to it."

"The bottom line is this wasn't a fair campaign," Mr Rahman added. "It was slanderous towards me."

Speaking to the M.E.N. after his victory, Coun Sarwar said that half of his support came from the Labour Party’s stance nationally on the conflict in Israel and Gaza, and the other half on local issues. Mr Rahman defended his and the Labour council's record in the area.

But local voters in the area told the M.E.N. prior to the election that the Gaza issue aside, Coun Rahman hadn’t done enough for the people of Longsight.

Zahid Abdul said he wouldn’t be voting for Labour. “I will vote for somebody that does something for Longsight,” he said. “I will not vote Labour, they have not done anything here.”

His gripe was that the state of the ‘roads which are not clean’, and claims he had been promised by Labour figures there will be improvements — but doesn’t think they’ve delivered.

“A couple of ladies came from George Galloway’s party and I thought about giving him some support.”

For its part, the council said its 'staff work in our neighbourhoods daily to ensure that businesses are correctly disposing of their waste' and 'takes steps to ensure that there is enough [bin] capacity, as well as frequent [bin] collections' in response to the criticism of Longsight's cleanliness.

Another local, who asked to remain anonymous, also predicted that the Workers Party would pick up votes. “Labour don’t do anything for you,” she told the M.E.N.

Asked how he had taken the loss, Mr Rahman said: "Personally, my intention of standing for a councillor was to serve the community that I live in and serve the city that I live in. I'm proud of the record that I've got. I'm proud of what I've done in Manchester. I can walk away feeling very content that I did what I set out to do which was to make a difference and have an impact and clearly I have done that.

"So personally, I'm fine. Whatever happens happens for the best. One door closes, three, four more others will open.

"I'm just sad for my area, I'm just sad for my community that they've had to endure this level of divisive rhetoric and divisive activity because there is clearly damage done in the community and that will take time to repair."

Councillor Luthfur Rahman and Abdul Qayum from Manchester Youth Academy
Mr Rahman defended his and the Labour council's record in the area -Credit:Mark Waugh Manchester Press Photography Ltd

The father-of-four said he will now 'take a little break' to spend more time with his family. But he has not ruled out a return to politics.

Asked whether he still wants to become an MP one day, Mr Rahman said: "I still have political ambitions. I will take it one step at a time and if a good opportunity presents itself then I'm not averse to it. I've still got a lot to offer. There's still a lot I want to do."

A Workers Party spokesperson said: "This is sour grapes. If he has serious claims that he thinks stand up to scrutiny, he shouldn't go off running to the M.E.N., he should go to the police. Intimidating voters is always entirely unacceptable. If he thinks that's what happened, which I would wholly dispute, he should go to GMP, not go to the press because the electorate rejected him resoundingly."

Longsight was one of 11 wards where additional staff were allocated on polling day, according to the returning officer responsible for the elections in Manchester, as turnout was expected to be higher and larger numbers of candidates were standing. A spokesperson said: "We have liaised with candidates and agents in all wards, briefing them on the electoral process and the behaviours expected."

Following the defeat, Manchester council leader Bev Craig said: “Luthfur has nothing but my sympathy… Luthfur is of course welcome back in Longsight or in another seat.

“It’s difficult when you lose, it’s hurtful and hard not to take it personally because in politics you put yourself out there as a person. I am obviously sad to see him go but there is a way back for him.”