Polls close in Rochdale byelection with George Galloway favourite to win seat

<span>A voter leaves a polling station in Rochdale on Thursday.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images</span>
A voter leaves a polling station in Rochdale on Thursday.Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The polls have closed in the Rochdale byelection after a chaotic race that dominated headlines, driven by conversations around the Israel-Gaza conflict.

The favourite to win is the former Labour MP George Galloway, standing as the candidate for the Workers Party of Britain. He has also been a Respect party MP, and a Rochdale win would mean a fourth seat in parliament for Galloway since 1987.

He has positioned himself as a pro-Palestinian voice, hoping to gain the support of thousands of disaffected Muslim voters. Labour’s divisive stance on the Israel-Gaza conflict has led much of Rochdale’s 30% Muslim population to withdraw their support for the party.

Labour withdrew its backing for its candidate, Azhar Ali, over an inflammatory comment about Israel, but under electoral law it was not able to replace him.

The byelection was called after the death of Labour’s Tony Lloyd from leukaemia on 17 January. The ensuing campaign became one of chaos, with two candidates having support withdrawn from their respective parties.

Ali was an adviser to the last Labour government on anti-extremism for the Home Office from 2005 to 2010.

In a leaked audio recording, he was heard claiming to Labour members that Israel “deliberately took the security off” to knowingly allow the 7 October attack to happen to “give them the green light to do whatever they bloody want”.

He apologised and called his comments “deeply offensive, ignorant and false”, but the party withdrew its support on 12 February.

Labour, which has held Rochdale as a safe seat since 2010, hopes enough of its supporters still voted for the party to block a Galloway victory, with Ali still appearing on the ballot.

But the bookies suggest Galloway is in prime position to win the seat. He has previously won seats from Labour in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012.

The Liberal Democrats and Conservative party are not expected to pose a serious threat.

Simon Danczuk, who was Rochdale’s Labour MP from 2010 to 2017, stood in this byelection for Reform UK, the anti-immigration party founded by Nigel Farage.

Guy Otten, who was standing for the Green party, decided to pull out of the race for the seat over Islamophobic tweets. A Green party spokesperson said: “As nominations have now closed, his name will still appear on the ballot. However, he will not take part in any campaigning between now and polling day.”