Advertisement

‘This is for Gaza’: George Galloway sweeps to victory in Rochdale byelection

The veteran political agitator George Galloway has declared “a shifting of the tectonic plates” away from Labour after claiming a stunning victory in the Rochdale byelection.

Galloway, one of the most divisive politicians in Britain, won almost 40% of the vote in a contest beset by chaos and controversy and dominated by the conflict in Gaza.

He took aim at Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak in a victory speech that was interrupted by hecklers after a dramatic count at the Rochdale leisure centre.

“Keir Starmer, this is for Gaza,” he said. “You will pay a high price for the role that you have played in enabling, encouraging and covering for the catastrophe presently going on in occupied Gaza, in the Gaza Strip.”

Interactive

Galloway won 12,335 votes – 39.7% of the total – in a much more sweeping victory than anyone had predicted, giving him a 5,697-vote majority.

A surprise second place went to David Tully, a local businessman who stood as an independent, saying he would speak up for the town rather than use it as a vehicle for political ambition.

Labour, which abandoned its candidate, Azhar Ali, over inflammatory comments he made about Israel, finished in fourth place with just 7.7%, having held a near-10,000 vote majority in the constituency.

Ahead of Ali in third was the Conservative candidate, Paul Ellison, who was barely visible on the campaign trail and is understood to have spent some of the period on holiday.

Galloway, an ex-Labour MP, has now unseated his former party in three elections and will return to parliament representing a fourth constituency in 37 years.

Addressing Starmer from the podium, Galloway said: “This is going to spark a movement, a landslide, a shifting of the tectonic plates, a score of parliamentary constituencies, beginning here in the north-west, in the West Midlands, in London, from Ilford to Bethnal Green and Bow.

“Labour is on notice that they have lost the confidence of millions of their voters who loyally and traditionally voted for them generation after generation.”

On Friday, the deputy leader of Galloway’s party accused the government and Labour of “effectively facilitating the genocide in Gaza. Former Labour MP Chris Williamson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “George Galloway is probably the best orator in the world. He’s now got a place in the corridors of power in Westminster, where the government and the official opposition are effectively facilitating the genocide in Gaza.”

The Board of Deputies of British Jews said Galloway’s victory marked “a dark day” for the UK’s Jewish community. A spokesperson said: “George Galloway is a demagogue and conspiracy theorist who has brought the politics of division and hate to every place he has ever stood for parliament.

“His election is a dark day for the Jewish community in this country and for British politics in general. We believe he should be shunned as a pariah by all parliamentarians.”

Ali did not attend the count and the Guardian understands that other Labour campaigners were told to stay away.

Despite a campaign dominated by events in the Middle East, Galloway said he hoped to put together a “grand alliance” with Rochdale councillors to work on local issues.

Dozens of Galloway supporters had gathered outside the leisure centre shortly after the polls closed, when it quickly became apparent he was set for a decisive victory. Inside the count, however, the mood was less hospitable. A family member of a rival candidate muttered “terrorist sympathiser” while another shouted “woe to Rochdale” after he was declared the winner.

Another heckler, who gave her name as Jane Twill, was removed by security after interrupting the victory speech by accusing Galloway of failing to address the climate emergency.

Galloway’s team were so confident that they briefed reporters within an hour of the polls closing that he had won “comfortably” and announced plans for a “mass rally” immediately after the declaration at his election headquarters, a former Suzuki showroom.

Labour, riding high in the polls, had expected a straightforward contest to replace the sitting MP, Tony Lloyd, who died on 17 January from leukaemia. But its campaign was thrown into disarray when it emerged its candidate had repeated anti-Israel conspiracy theories about the 7 October attack by Hamas.

Labour was forced to disown Ali but with his name remaining on the ballot paper – it was too late to select another candidate – Labour stopped all electioneering in the town nearly three weeks ago.

Galloway, on the other hand, was galvanised. The fedora-sporting politician toured Rochdale with a megaphone, calling the byelection “a referendum on Gaza” and a chance to stage a protest against Labour.

His team, backed by an army of volunteers from across the country, managed to capture the vote of a significant number of Muslim people, who make up about 30% of the town’s population, with many angry about Labour’s position on Gaza.

Interactive

Starmer’s party also faced a challenge from another former Labour MP in the form of Simon Danczuk, who was suspended from the party in 2015 after sending inappropriate messages to a teenager. Danczuk, Rochdale’s MP from 2010 to 2017, was standing for Reform UK, the anti-immigration party founded by Nigel Farage.

Danczuk’s new party did poorly, finishing in sixth place with only 6.3% of the vote. A Reform UK source said the party had underperformed because of logistics: the Rochdale contest was the third byelection it had fought in three weeks and it had been focusing on its party conference in Doncaster last weekend.

Galloway, 69, previously unseated his former party in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012, both following campaigns based heavily on events in the Middle East.

Like Galloway’s previous campaigns, the Rochdale contest was mired in controversy. In the week when MPs were raising concerns over their safety, Galloway said the names of Labour MPs were “dripping in blood” after the party’s ceasefire amendment, which did not go as far as pro-Palestinian supporters wanted.

Related: George Galloway: constituency-hopping campaigner who is rarely far from controversy

Earlier this week, a 23-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of sending a death threat to Danczuk, who hired security guards for the final two days of campaigning.

Galloway’s team said its banners and garden posts had been ripped down in an effort to stop it getting the word out.

There were allegations of dirty tricks on polling day too, as Reform UK lodged a formal complaint about Galloway activists distributing leaflets outside polling stations.

Richard Tice, the leader of Reform, claimed the contest had not been “free or fair” and made unspecified suggestions that the postal vote had been rigged.

“This byelection and result should act as a serious wake-up call to those in power and indeed to the entire electorate,” he said. “We are supposed to be a beacon of democracy, this shameful contest has been more characteristic of a failed state.”

Galloway’s team had earlier accused Labour canvassers of speaking to voters inside polling stations.