‘They don’t represent us’: Rochdale voters on why they deserted major parties

<span>A mural with the word 'Rochdale' is seen on the side of a former mill in Rochdale. Some voters said they had voted for the first time to send George Galloway to parliament – and deliver a message to Labour.</span><span>Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters</span>
A mural with the word 'Rochdale' is seen on the side of a former mill in Rochdale. Some voters said they had voted for the first time to send George Galloway to parliament – and deliver a message to Labour.Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

In the freezing dark outside Rochdale leisure centre, Hassan Ali, 26, celebrated George Galloway’s stunning victory hours before the result was officially declared. “We have created history tonight,” he said in the small hours of Friday, surrounded by dozens of young men, slapping each other on the back and video-calling friends in English, Urdu and Bengali.

“Our families have voted for Labour for many years because they’ve got used to ticking the flower box, but this is a vote for change,” said Ali, a community worker.

Around him, several men in their 20s said they had voted for the first time on Thursday in order to send Galloway to parliament – and deliver a message to Labour.

“Labour have been running these streets for years and they’ve done nothing,” Ali said. “Starmer has betrayed the people of Rochdale and the Asian vote.”

Galloway, the irrepressible agitator, is back in the Commons representing a fourth constituency in nearly four decades after urging voters to deliver “the ultimate protest” over Labour’s handling of the Israel-Gaza conflict.

The scale of his victory, winning a near-6,000 vote majority, was the final surprise in a byelection beset by chaos, controversy and allegations of dirty tricks.

Police officers guarded polling stations in parts of the Greater Manchester town in a way not seen in a British election in decades, while security was tight at the overnight count.

Two days earlier a man was arrested for sending a death threat to Rochdale’s former Labour MP, Simon Danczuk, who was contesting the seat for the anti-immigration Reform UK, which hired security guards and moved some of its staff out of a shared property over fears for their safety.

Nigel Farage’s party, which came sixth with a dismal 6% of the vote, lodged a formal complaint about Galloway’s team distributing leaflets outside polling venues on Thursday.

The complaint to Rochdale’s returning officer, which has been seen by the Guardian, accuses Galloway’s activists of “breaking the rules with impunity” – an accusation they would deny.

Galloway’s team, meanwhile, claimed Labour had tried to solicit votes inside a polling station and said its banners had been torn down all over Rochdale.

Observers will seek to draw wider lessons from Galloway’s striking victory, yet this was a contest virtually unprecedented in modern times. Labour, who had held the seat with a near-10,000 vote majority, abandoned its campaign after it emerged that its candidate had shared inflammatory conspiracy theories about Israel.

But Labour would be wrong to dismiss the result as an aberration. “I think this is a historic shift away from Labour,” said Wafa Hameed Salik, 43, before prayers outside Rochdale’s Bilal mosque on Friday.

The Labour party runs through Salik’s blood: his dad was a respected party figure locally – a road was named after him – and his uncle was until recently the Labour mayor of Rochdale. But he voted for Galloway having lost hope in Starmer’s party.

“Labour always thought ‘oh, we have our voters and whatever’ but this is changing,” he said. Galloway’s campaign, he said, was “like an explosion”.

The 69-year-old ex-Labour MP, unseating his former party for the third time in another campaign fought largely on the Middle East, used a speech outside the Bilal mosque to ask Muslims how they would answer “on judgment day” when they were asked: “What did you do when Keir Starmer asked you to endorse what he has done?”

Seen by some as cynical, divisive and manipulative, Galloway doubled down, describing the byelection in one of Britain’s poorest towns as “a referendum on Gaza”.

Outside Rochdale’s mainly-Muslim areas, he sought to show he cared about local issues, delivering leaflets mentioning potholes and Primark – he promised to bring the shop to the town’s shopping centre – written on literature in the colours of the Palestinian flag.

Khalid Javed, 64, who voted for Galloway in this election, said voters like him in Rochdale wanted to express their lack of trust in the political system. “We wanted to mess everything up,” he said. “We want to show that there’s no support for the major parties. We don’t want to listen, I despise these people. They don’t represent us.”

This dissatisfaction with the main parties is not exclusive to the Muslim community, however.

David Tully, a local businessman and a political newcomer, finished second in the byelection with an extraordinary 21% of the vote. This meant three-fifths of the votes went to the insurgents, Galloway and Tully, more than double the number shared between the three main parties, although Labour’s campaign was cut short.

How this byelection result is reflected at the general election may be largely down to Labour. If the party can mend relations with the Muslim voters who flocked en masse to Galloway, then they will probably retake Rochdale within months. If not, the party could be out in the cold in the town for years.

Back outside Bilal mosque, another worshipper – who did not want to give his full name – said he liked and respected Galloway but did not vote for him because the MP’s speeches, however powerful, were “not going to make a difference”.

“What is he really gonna do? The whole world can’t do anything [to stop the conflict],” Mr Arfan, 34, said. Having previously voted for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, on Thursday he stayed at home: “I’ve got no faith in none of them. They’re useless.”