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Rochdale polls open after election contest dominated by Gaza

<span>A George Galloway campaign banner on a house in Rochdale.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
A George Galloway campaign banner on a house in Rochdale.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Polls have opened in the Rochdale byelection after a chaotic contest dominated by the war in Gaza.

The veteran campaigner George Galloway is the bookies’ favourite to win after Labour abandoned its candidate over inflammatory comments he made about Israel.

Galloway, the former Labour MP, has described the poll as “a referendum on Gaza” and sought to capture the votes of thousands of disaffected Muslims.

Related: ‘We don’t deserve this’: Rochdale voters left cold by byelection chaos

Labour had expected to increase its 9,668-vote majority in the Greater Manchester town until it emerged that its candidate, Azhar Ali, had repeated anti-Israel conspiracy theories about the 7 October attack by Hamas.

Ali will still be on the ballot paper – it was too late to select another candidate – but he will sit as an independent MP if he wins. The result is expected at around 3am on Friday.

The byelection was called after the death of Rochdale’s MP, Sir Tony Lloyd, from leukaemia on 17 January.

Labour enjoys an average 20-point lead in the national opinion polls and was riding high on the success of the Wellingborough and Kingswood byelections earlier this month, both of which it won from the Tories with double-digit swings.

But what was expected to be a straightforward contest to replace Lloyd was thrown into disarray when Ali’s comments were published by the Mail on Sunday on 11 February. He had suggested Israel had deliberately relaxed security after warnings of an imminent threat.

Labour, which has held Rochdale since 2010, hopes that enough of its supporters will vote for the party on Thursday to stop Galloway, although byelections always have lower turnouts than nationwide polls.

Sir Keir Starmer’s party faces 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 was Rochdale’s MP from 2010 to 2017 and is standing for Reform UK, the anti-immigration party presided over by Nigel Farage.

The two other main parties, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, are not expected to mount a serious challenge, while Labour’s vote is expected to be split further between a handful of local independent candidates.

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Galloway, 69, is expected to be the main beneficiary of the chaos having campaigned on a pro-Palestine ticket aimed at Rochdale’s Muslim community, which accounts for about 30% of the population.

It would be the third time the veteran agitator has unseated his former party after victories in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012.

Like his previous campaigns, the Rochdale contest has been mired in controversy. Galloway last week said the names of Labour MPs were “dripping in blood” after the party’s ceasefire amendment, which did not go as far as some pro-Palestine supporters wanted.

The four-week contest has been mired in 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.