‘A total, total disaster’: Galloway and Danczuk line up for Rochdale push

<span>Galloway plans to ride another wave of anger to the Commons on 29 February.</span><span>Photograph: James Speakman/PA</span>
Galloway plans to ride another wave of anger to the Commons on 29 February.Photograph: James Speakman/PA

Every day at 10am George Galloway rallies his troops at a Suzuki showroom just outside Rochdale town centre. In one room, boxes of leaflets are piled high against second-hand cars. In another, he takes his campaign to the airwaves.

Earlier this week when MPs raised fears for their safety amid the increasingly fraught votes on Gaza, Galloway told thousands of supporters online that the names of Keir Starmer’s team were “dripping in blood”.

From the Suzuki boardroom where, according to activists, he broadcasts his twice-weekly online polemics, he said Labour’s motion had been proposed by “the Labour fiends of Israel, not friends” and “the worst scoundrels and criminals in the international community at this time”.

With less than a week to go until the vote described as “the most radioactive byelection in living memory”, Galloway, the veteran agitator, is the bookies’ favourite to win.

“I stand on the brink of an historic byelection victory which will shake the walls of Westminster, which will change history,” he bellowed with characteristic understatement this week.

Galloway, 69, has twice unseated Labour, his former party, in similarly ugly elections, and plans to ride another wave of anger from Rochdale to the Commons on 29 February.

The former Press TV host refused to talk to the Guardian at his election HQ this week, but the mood among his activists was upbeat. About 30% of Rochdale’s population is Muslim – around 30,000 people – and they feel they have enough support to overturn Labour’s 9,668-vote majority.


In some parts of Rochdale, every house has a Galloway poster in the window. WhatsApp groups are abuzz. His leaflets, in the colours of the Palestinian flag, mention “potholes”, “town centre” and “grooming gangs”, but online the maverick politician is clear that the poll is about one issue: “a referendum on Gaza”.

Going into the final weekend of campaigning, the mood among Labour figures was dark. The party in effect left the playing field after it emerged that its candidate, Azhar Ali, had been recorded sharing inflammatory conspiracy theories about Israeli involvement in the 7 October atrocity.

Labour was already haemorrhaging support from the town’s Muslim community before the scandal, amid unease about the party’s stance on a ceasefire and Starmer’s suggestion in an LBC interview that Israel had the “right” to cut off Gaza’s water, a comment he later clarified.

One senior party figure said Labour had planned to “counter Galloway’s megaphone with a whisper campaign”, soothing community concerns in quiet conversations in homes, mosques and community centres. But that plan was killed when Ali, who had been tasked with bringing people back to the party, was suspended.

The only hope now is that there is enough residual support for Labour to survive, but there is little optimism. “If we could cling on to half that vote I think we’d have survived,” said one local Labour source on Friday. “I’m not so sure we will now.”

Galloway is the bookies’ favourite. His team has about 200 volunteers – including a core of 50 – who plan to make contact with each of Rochdale’s 79,000 voters three times before polling day.

One of the volunteers, Farrukh Haroon, 48, the brother of the former Respect party leader Salma Yaqoob, said they had activists at the school gates – some handing out stickers in the colours of the Palestine flag – and others spreading the word on social media. “There will be a massive, massive push this weekend,” he said, stuffing leaflets though letterboxes.

It is online where Labour fears Galloway is having the most impact. Harrowing images emerge daily out of Gaza and are shared widely on the WhatsApp groups of younger Muslims in Rochdale, many who do not have their parents’ loyalty to Labour.

In Rochdale town centre, there was little enthusiasm for any of the 11 male candidates. Ann Beresford, 70, said she had always voted Labour but was dismayed by Ali’s remarks and the party’s handling of it. “If he’s making comments like that he should keep it to himself,” she said. Her daughter Sarah Taafe, 47, said she also normally voted Labour but had decided not to cast a vote next week with a general election due some time in the next year.

In the San Remo cafe, another former Labour MP has returned to haunt the party. Simon Danczuk, the MP for Rochdale from 2010 to 2017, was suspended by the party in 2015 over explicit messages he sent to a 17-year-old girl. Now he is back and standing for Reform UK, the anti-immigration party presided over by Nigel Farage.

Tucking into a small caesar salad – his wife, a 29-year-old beauty therapist from Rwanda, has banned him from eating carbohydrates before polling day – Danczuk, 57, said he believed Galloway would not be Rochdale’s next MP as there was a “silent majority who are determined not to have him”.

Whatever the result, there is little sign that Rochdale will be able to unite behind the winner. The loser, said one businesswoman, would be Rochdale: “It’s a total, total disaster. Everything you hear about Rochdale is negative and it’s not a negative place at all. Most people are saying: isn’t it chaotic. End of story.”