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Gaza is dominating the Rochdale by-election – and letting George Galloway outfox Labour

The issue of Gaza has become a focal point for Galloway in Rochdale's by-election this month
The issue of Gaza has become a focal point for Galloway in Rochdale's by-election this month

At George Galloway’s political headquarters based in a Suzuki car dealership on the outskirts of Rochdale, his campaign colours are on full display. Leaflets and glossy brochures bear his signature image – the Ray-Bans and black fedora hat – against the unmistakable red, white, green and black of the Palestinian flag. Galloway himself wears a badge of the colours.

Large billboards dotted around the former mining town accuse Sir Keir Starmer of being in the “pocket of Israel”.  “The people of Gaza don’t have a vote in this election; you do,” blasts one of Galloway’s pamphlets.

It is not a coincidence. The issue of Gaza has become as central in this by-election campaign – called because of the death of Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd last month – as it has in national politics.

The neglected former mill town at the foothills of the Pennines, north of Manchester, is roughly 20 per cent Muslim, and feelings are running high over Labour’s reluctance to call for  an immediate ceasefire. Across north Lancashire, roughly two dozen Labour councillors have now resigned from the party over Gaza.

Despite this, until a few weeks ago, the Labour candidate and leader of the opposition of the Conservative-run Lancashire County Council, Azhar Ali, was considered the front runner. But after parroting a conspiracy theory that Israel was complicit in the attacks on October 7, his campaign has imploded.

Labour has withdrawn its support and drawn the shutters on their campaign headquarters in the town, leaving Ali to fight for the seat as an independent. He is, however, nowhere to be seen. Repeated calls go unanswered, and texts come back that he is in a meeting. No one has seen him out canvassing for support.

To not have a Labour candidate on the ballot is a woeful situation for Labour, in a constituency that has voted for the party since 2010. But it has led the political firebrand Galloway and his team to be in a defiant and cautiously optimistic mood.

The Labour campaign offices in Oldham Road,Rochdale, which have been closed since the party withdrew support for its own candidate in the Rochdale by-election, Azhar Ali, over comments he made about the Israel-Hamas war
Labour has drawn the shutters on their campaign headquarters - Asadour Guzelian

When I meet him, in his campaign bunker surrounded by young men from his Workers Party, which he formed in 2019 following Labour’s ousting of Jeremy Corbyn, he says: “As Imran Khan put it once, I play to the last ball. I’ll be fighting to the last hour, to the last street. The bookmakers have me as favourite, I can understand why but we’re taking nothing for granted.”

Straight-talking Galloway, 69, who still has his Scottish accent, believes the 40,000-strong Asian community in the town is enough to swing him the vote. They have, after all, regularly secured Labour victories in these parts in the past. 
If so, it will see this long-term supporter of Palestine return to parliament for the fourth time – only Winston Churchill is ahead of him, having represented five constituencies.

His campaign to date has been unapologetically Gaza-focussed. He is unfazed by accusations on antisemitism (he was viciously assaulted on these grounds in 2014, leaving him with scars on his head, which he hides with his fedora) and is unapologetic about chants of “From the River to the Sea” at his campaign rallies in the town.

“I’m in favour of a democratic state for Jews, Muslims and Christians between the river and the sea,” he has previously said. “I’m concerned about the blood and flesh that’s being torn apart in Gaza, not the feelings someone might have about me using the words, ‘River to the sea’.”

But in the last few days, he has broadened out his message, insisting he has “something for everybody”. He is campaigning for more youth clubs, to re-open the open-air market in the town and to reinstate maternity services, which closed in 2012.

Workers Party Rochdale by-election candidate George Galloway in his office at campaign headquarters
Galloway in his office at campaign headquarters - Asadour Guzelian

He says: “We have many great and famous people born here in Rochdale [names include Gracie Fields, the 19th century politician John Bright, and the pop singer Lisa Stansfield]. But this is one of the few towns in which it’s impossible to be born. [The hospital has no maternity services]. And not only that, you can’t die here either because there is no A and E. I think all of Rochdale agrees, Labour has dragged the town into disgrace. Everyone agrees Labour suck.”

He is also keen to remind people he was a Brexit supporter, which Rochdale voted 60 per cent in favour of. He says: “People recognise I was one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign. Granted, the Tories made a mess of it and it isn’t the flavour of the month. They have completely failed to capitalise on the opportunities that Brexit provided.

“But here in Rochdale, it was a landslide victory for Brexit and I’m the only person standing that was out actively campaigning for it.”

Unsurprisingly, he is also campaigning on anti-woke issues. “The Labour party can’t agree what a woman is,” he says. “Whereas I’m very clear. As a father of six children, I’m socially conservative. I don’t want my children taught the kind of things Labour wants to teach them in schools.”

Keen to show he can campaign across all issues, when he meets mainly British Muslims of Pakistani heritage, from the local Age Concern group at the Castlemere Community Centre, a former redbrick Victorian school, he condemns the “carnage” in Gaza as vigorously as he promises the town a new Primark. “Primark will be my lasting legacy,” he cries.

But his remarks are greeted with a mixed response. “We don’t need a Primark,” one tells me. “And I think Azhar Ali was set up. I’m Muslim but I have many friends who are Jews. You can’t just talk against them because of this. You’ve got to still maintain friendships.”

But another says: “He’s the only candidate who comes out and meets people. Let’s see if he delivers. People do want maternity services, especially the older women as they can remember having their kids here. And the Gaza issue and Labour’s stance of not calling for a ceasefire has really hit a nerve.”

It is this nerve that Galloway is keen to exploit, and he is well-placed to do it, being one of the most effective constituency campaigners in modern times. For 16 years, he was a Labour MP in Glasgow, before his party expelled him for attacking Tony Blair over the Iraq War. He took revenge by moving to London’s East End, where he took the safe Labour seat of Bethnal Green and Bow for his new Respect Party in 2005. In 2012, he contested a by-election in another strongly Muslim Labour constituency, Bradford West, and scored a swing of 37 per cent. Three years ago, in Batley and Spen, he won almost 22 per cent of the votes, gaining so many ex-Labour Muslim supporters that Starmer’s party held on by barely 300 ballots

George Galloway, who is standing for the Workers Party in the 29 February Rochdale by-election, is greeted by a supporter outside his campaign headquarters in the Lancashire town
Galloway is greeted by a supporter outside his campaign headquarters in the Lancashire town - Asadour Guzelian

Rochdale is a town also desperate for change. In its heyday, it was a mighty industrial force, with neo-Gothic civil infrastructure, a co-operative movement and its waterways once powering its cotton mills.

Yet it is now mired in political scandal and deprivation.

One of the poorest towns in the UK, more than 40 per cent of its children are classed as living in poverty. It has also been mired in a grooming scandal, where Asian males sexually trafficked and raped vulnerable white girls which the Labour council was accused of covering up.

In 2020, there was another national outcry when the toddler Awaab Ishak died from a respiratory condition caused by mould in his family’s housing association flat. Political disaffection culminated in 60 per cent voting for Brexit, while the town sees more than its fair share of asylum seekers, due to it being cheaper to house them there. The town centre has also declined, with the market and cinema closing in recent years. Crime and drugs are an issue. Four young boys were recently arrested for rape in the town centre.

For some, there is a feeling that the Gaza issue has dragged too much attention away from the issues the town faces. The fact that there is not one female parliamentary candidate on the list has barely been noticed.

George Galloway by-election placards at campaign headquarters
Some feel that the conflict in Gaza is overshadowing local issues - Asadour Guzelian

Saima Kauser, 32, says: “There’s huge local issues in Rochdale. We are all struggling to live.” Her partner works 30 hours at a butchers, while Kauser used to work in a warehouse but is now looking after her baby.

She says: “We pay £800 a month to rent privately, but it has black mould on the walls and ceilings and the landlord won’t do anything about it. I’ve been on a list for council housing for more than two years now. At the end of the month, with all the bills, we have nothing left. Gaza is important, but we need to focus on the issues where we are living. A homeless man died outside Asda a few weeks ago. Why did no one help him?”

Meanwhile, Rashida Jordan, 44, a community support worker, questions the priorities of the council. She says: “The council is a shambles, it does nothing for the people and this is a deprived area. I’m really not against asylum seekers. In fact, I help them myself. But there is a thought that they get things for free, when local people get nothing.

“The Gaza issue is just making people crazy. The Muslims want George Galloway to win, while other people think he’s no good. I’ve been Labour all my life. My dad was Labour. Now, I don’t care who wins. But we need help in this town.”

Back at Galloway’s campaign headquarters, which was gifted to him by a local supporter, some feel Galloway will win because Labour supporters won’t come out as they have no candidate.

Rochdale town hall
Rochdale is now mired in political scandal and deprivation - Asadour Guzelian

But there is also disquiet that Ali’s name will appear on the ballot under the Labour banner – due to the fact it is too late to change the ballot slips. Farooq Ahmed, a former Labour councillor who has thrown his weight behind Galloway, says: “We know for a fact that many local people do not know that he is not standing as a Labour candidate. So they may see him on the ballot for Labour and may vote for that. People are confused. It’s misleading. If he wins, then perhaps we will look at contesting the result.”

All told, 11 are on the ballot, including Reverend Mark Coleman, an independent candidate and Just Stop Oil protestor, and Simon Danczuk, for Reform UK. Danczuk says: “Local problems are being entirely ignored. People here care about jobs, the costs of living and normal bread and butter issues that affect us all.

“And yet because of the grift of Galloway, who is interested only in himself, these problems are ignored. All people are talking about are views of fanatical minority of Rochdale and the wider Muslim community.”

If Galloway does win, either because of support for him, or because Labour votes don’t come out, it will be the first time his Workers Party of Britain has been represented in Westminster.

But for Labour, it will be a bloody nose – and sign that a war thousands of miles away, can continue to cause them significant damage.

The Telegraph has contacted Labour for comment