What does George Galloway’s Rochdale byelection win mean for other parties?

While George Galloway’s portentous declaration of “a shifting of the tectonic plates” was the sort of hyperbole he specialises in, his sweeping victory in the Rochdale byelection does carry some lessons for other parties, and not reassuring ones.

It is not the first or even the second time Galloway has swept aside his former party Labour by claiming to be the only candidate who can properly represent the interests of Muslim voters, rolling into town with a mass of eager volunteers and a platform based less on policy than on his fiery rhetoric.

But his capture of nearly 40% of the vote in Rochdale – with the cut-adrift Labour candidate, Azhar Ali, pushed into fourth place in a seat the party formerly held with a near 10,000 majority – has come in the context of the Gaza war, and the many divisions connected to it.

As demonstrated in November, when eight Labour frontbenchers resigned to vote for a ceasefire motion, and last week, when the Commons speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, allowed the party to duck a similar vote over concerns about intimidation, the party remains badly split on the issue.


Of course, it is possible Labour would have held off Galloway had it not disowned Ali after it emerged he had suggested Israel had deliberately allowed the 7 October massacre by Hamas to take place.

But Galloway’s ability to galvanise voters aghast at the death toll in Gaza, particularly the roughly 30% of the town who are Muslim, via what was effectively a single-issue campaign with literature in the colours of the Palestinian flag, demonstrated the strength of feeling.

In the wake of the byelection, some observers have noted that while in Westminster support for an immediate ceasefire can almost feel a niche position, it is backed by a clear majority of the public.

Gavin Barwell, the former Tory MP who was Theresa May’s chief of staff, argued on Friday that recent protests should not be misrepresented. “The extremists are a very small minority but the truth is the British people overwhelmingly support a ceasefire,” he said.

Could the Workers Party of Britain, Galloway’s latest political vehicle, remove other Labour MPs at the general election? That seems less likely given its tiny resources, plus the fact that, unlike in Rochdale, it would face the might of Labour’s campaigning machine.

Galloway’s return to parliament comes only days after Rishi Sunak argued that “mob rule” had taken over British politics, a reference to regular pro-Palestine demonstrations and threats to MPs over the issue.

Expect some politicians, perhaps Suella Braverman, who has already claimed Islamists are “in charge”, to respond to Galloway’s win via the ruthless targeting of one demographic as another sign of shattered community cohesion.

The reality is perhaps less apocalyptic, if nonetheless messy. Galloway won in the same way in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, and Bradford West in 2012. He served one term in each with minimal impact in parliament, the country more widely or, his critics said, for his constituents.

Galloway will hope to arrive back in Westminster as the figurehead for Gaza. But he is too divisive and controversial a figure to have broad appeal, and past experience shows he much prefers campaigning to become an MP than the slightly more prosaic business of actually being one.

What else can we divine from Rochdale? For Reform, this was a gloomy night after relatively strong showings in last month’s Wellingborough and Kingswood byelections.

Its candidate, the former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who was suspended from the party in 2015 after sending inappropriate messages to a teenager, finished sixth behind an independent, the Liberal Democrats and a Conservative candidate who spent much of the campaign period on holiday.

Reform suggested this poor result was in part due to logistical exhaustion for the tiny party, and perhaps the most basic lesson of all from the byelection is that the nuts and bolts of campaigning and getting out the vote really do matter.

Overall, this was something of a depressing spectacle for a town facing significant deprivation and numerous other problems barely addressed by many of the 11 men who vied to become its representative.

The Galloway circus has once again swept in, declared a revolution and will most likely slink out again, this time in a matter of months. The 69-year-old has another political scalp to brag about. And what has Rochdale got? For now, it seems, not much.