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Rochdale campaign ‘one of the most divisive in recent times’, says Sunak

Simon Danczuk, the Reform UK candidate, at the count in Rochdale on Friday morning
Simon Danczuk, the Reform UK candidate, and Claudine Uwamahoro, his wife. Earlier this week, a man was arrested after making an online death threat against him - Phil Noble/Reuters

Rishi Sunak has described the campaign for the Rochdale by-election as “one of the most divisive in recent times” as candidates complained of aggressive behaviour by supporters of George Galloway.

The Prime Minister said it was “very concerning” to see reports of intimidation during the contest, which was won by Mr Galloway for his Workers Party of Britain after Labour disowned its candidate.

Downing Street later said such intimidation does not “represent our values of tolerance and respect” and that the Government “won’t allow that to continue or stifle democracy”.

It came as the Conservatives accused supporters of Mr Galloway of hounding people and following them down streets, as well as intimidation in one particular ward. They said they had put in an official complaint to Rochdale Borough Council about reports of bullying behaviour.

Reform UK said its staff had had to be removed from the constituency for their own safety, while a burger van displaying a party poster was threatened with firebombing.

Earlier this week, a man was arrested after making an online death threat against Simon Danczuk, the Reform candidate.

Mr Sunak said: “It was very concerning to see the reports of intimidation through the by-election, and by all accounts one of the most divisive campaigns that we’ve seen in recent times.

“I’m pleased the Conservative Party was the only party to run a really positive campaign, focused on local issues, with a great local candidate, Paul Ellison.”

A No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has expressed his concerns at the behaviour and increased intimidation that we’ve seen in recent weeks and months.

“He’s very clear that there is no place for that in our society. It doesn’t represent our values of tolerance and respect, and he’s very clear that he will always defend and champion those values.

“There is a difference between robust debate and the importance of freedom of expression and intimidation, and we won’t allow that to continue or stifle democracy.”

Richard Tice, the Reform leader, claimed the by-election was not “free and fair” and also questioned a sharp rise in the number of postal votes cast, saying they were “unquestionably open to significant abuse”.

He did not provide evidence of voting irregularities to support the claim.

Richard Tice claimed candidate Simon Danczuk and his team had been 'subjected to death threats'
Richard Tice claimed candidate Simon Danczuk and his team had been 'subjected to death threats' - Phil Noble/Reuters

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Mr Tice wrote: “People across the UK need to know the truth about this election campaign – and the implications for our democracy.

“To suggest that a parliamentary election in this country has not been truly free and fair is a very serious allegation indeed.

“Unfortunately however, the behaviour of certain candidates and their supporters in this contest fell very far short of our traditional democratic standards.”

The post said that “in recent weeks, Reform UK’s candidate and campaign team has been subjected to death threats, suffered vile racist abuse, been refused entry to hustings in a public building, had to be relocated for his own safety, suffered daily intimidation and slurs”.

He said the results of the by-election “should act as a stark wake up call to those in power – and the entire electorate”, adding: “This is Britain. We are supposed to be a beacon of democracy. This shameful contest has been more characteristic of a failed state.

“Unless something dramatic changes, our fear is that it will be repeated in dozens of constituencies across the UK at the general election.”

A source at the party said: “The intimidation was off the scale of what we have seen before. There was a burger van with our leaflets on it that was threatened with being firebombed. We had to move a lot of our stuff.

“On polling day, there were numerous Galloway supporters outside polling stations, which was quite intimidating. The cumulative effect of all this was horrific. We had to take on two extra security people this week. The staff did not feel safe at the count, which is why they did not stay to the end.”

Mr Galloway and Rochdale council were contacted for comment.