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21 February 2024

Will George Galloway win the Rochdale by-election?

The former Labour and Respect MP has good reason to fancy his chances.

By Ben Walker

In the annals of political history, Rochdale isn’t far off earning the epithet “cursed”. Once the seat of child abuser Cyril Smith, the current by-election, caused by the death of the Labour MP Tony Lloyd, has seen candidates and parties left, right and centre humiliated. (See Anoosh’s report from the seat in this week’s NS.)

The suspension of Azhar Ali as Labour’s candidate, after he suggested that Israel allowed the 7 October massacre to happen, has opened up a race that appeared a foregone conclusion. While Ali will still appear on the ballot under Labour (electoral law prohibited the selection of a new candidate), he is receiving no formal local or national support.

Which takes us to another suspended candidate, the Green Party’s Guy Otten. Like Ali, Otten has been suspended by his party, though in this case over social media posts on Gaza (and Islam). Unlike Ali, however, he has resolved to “leave the stage” and effectively end his campaign.

But that’s not all, for now the Liberal Democrats are embroiled in their own disciplinary row. No, their parliamentary candidate hasn’t been suspended. But one of their council candidates has. Farooq Ahmed, the Lib Dem prospective councillor for Rochdale’s central ward, was recently pictured campaigning for George Galloway – Galloway who, two weeks ago, I suggested was a probable also-ran, not a winner.

Now we shouldn’t be so sure. The absence of an official Labour candidate changes the electoral dynamics entirely. In a Labour-held seat, the party machine that makes the most noise will, of course, be Labour’s. And until Ali’s suspension, the party was doing just that: acquiring thousands of contacts, arranging postal-vote sign-ups, and printing and delivering reams of literature. Ali’s suspension won’t erase all of this, and, in the minds of some voters, he will remain their default choice.

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Electoral history shows that suspended candidates do poll below their forecast share – sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. That said, there are plenty of cases of suspended council candidates still winning, so I’d be careful not to write off Ali prematurely.

But the same applies to Galloway, who could now become this by-election’s central character. The former Labour and Respect MP, who is standing for – for all intents and purposes – his Workers’ Party, has form for winning in Muslim-heavy seats (Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012). In Batley and Spen in 2021 he finished third but still received 21.9 per cent of the vote.

The proportion of Muslims in Rochdale is lower (30.5 per cent) than in some of Galloway’s previous endeavours and, as I’ve noted before, Muslim turnout tends to be lower than Christian/white turnout.

There are many unknowns. Is the suspension of Ali likely to push white turnout elsewhere (if not down?), away from a Labour party now no longer in the race - its candidate suspended over an issue that by and large white voters haven’t been all that keen on wading in on? 

Though it commands huge media attention, Israel-Palestine is not a significant issue for most voters (polling shows they are reluctant to take a side). Yet Labour’s support among Muslim voters, Survation polling suggets, has fallen by 26 points, somewhat (we can say with confidence) as a consequence of that very issue. Many Muslim voters have become apathetic or indifferent, but will that change in a contest where the issue of Israel and Palestine is central?

Perhaps, unlike in previous contests, Muslim voters will turn out in disproportionate numbers – not least in anger at what was their Labour Party. This is the unknown.

And if white Rochdalians – depressed by the suspension of Labour’s candidate, either stay at home – “stick” with Ali, or go searching, a party could win with as little as 30 per cent of their vote. Galloway, on this basis, may well fancy his chances.

Galloway's appeal is disproportionately Asian. That bit can be certain. But it's not exclusively Asian. He has a populist appeal similar to that of Nigel Farage, a man who he shared many a platform with in arguing for a Leave vote in 2016. He speaks to an "up-yours" sentiment that transcends ethnicities. A carefully honed, demographic-specific message here could do him dividends in a no doubt extremely apathetic area.

Whoever wins is likely to be an MP for little more than six months. By the time of the general election, Labour’s new candidate (in the absence of a new scandal) will be the immediate favourite. What a truly strange, yet, in the grand scheme of things, inconsequential, by-election.

[See also: Inside the Lib Dems' plan to "squeeze Labour"]

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