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21 February 2024

Rochdale’s by-election brings the Gaza war to Britain

A neglected former mill town is a microcosm of a fractured nation.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The plight of the Palestinians has made its way to the Pennines. On a blustery day in the Lancashire mill town of Rochdale, George Galloway rose to speak at a weekly lunch club of local women at Castlemere Community Centre, a handsome redbrick former Victorian school. He condemned the “carnage in Gaza”, mainstream politicians who were “ignoring” his audience and – with the same thundering intensity – the “state of the Exchange shopping centre”. The 70 or so women, mainly older British Muslims of Pakistani heritage, applauded from cabaret-style round tables bedecked in white tablecloths, as Galloway – who was expelled from the Labour Party in 2003 for his vocal opposition to the Iraq invasion – promised to bring a Primark to Rochdale. “Primark will be my lasting legacy!”

“I think he’s fantastic, and it’s good to hear someone speaking the truth,” said Ayisha, a 40-year-old carer. “I’ve always voted Labour but how they’ve been on Gaza has really hit a nerve around here. I’m a Muslim, before anything else. But what’s he really going to change? We don’t need a Primark! That would only make the town worse…”

A veteran agitator, Galloway over the years has been accused of cosying up to dictators and associating with people who have displayed anti-Semitic behaviour. A self-styled champion of the working class, he rejects what he calls “woke identity politics”. He has twice won in Labour constituencies as an independent: in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012. Having won 22 per cent of the vote in a by-election in Batley and Spen in July 2021 – a seat narrowly held by Labour during a fraught period for Keir Starmer’s leadership – Galloway is trying his luck in Rochdale, where 30 per cent of the local population is Muslim, of largely Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Kashmiri origin.

Migrants began arriving from south Asia in the early 1960s to work in the declining textile towns of England’s north-west. The industry died in the Eighties, leaving behind derelict buildings, deprivation and, in some areas, a racially and religiously segregated population. Over the decades since, strands of hard-line Islam imported from the Gulf, such as Salafism and Wahhabism, often funded by Saudi money, have clashed with less anti-Western expressions of the faith, such as the mystical Sufism and reformist Ahmadiyya community – in some instances splintering locals into micro-communities. Eight years ago, concerns grew in Rochdale that younger Muslims were turning to more extremist interpretations of Islam when two young Islamic State supporters killed a retired imam who practised a spiritual form of healing called taweez. More recently, a disproportionate number of asylum seekers have also ended up in Rochdale, where it’s cheaper for the government to house them.

Galloway is adept at exploiting grievance and knows Labour is losing British Muslim voters for refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. The party’s support among this demographic has dropped from 86 per cent to an estimated 60 per cent since the 2019 election, according to the Labour Muslim Network. Starmer’s comments (since rescinded) shortly after the horrifying Hamas attacks of 7 October 2023 – that it was Israel’s “right” to cut off power and water to the Gaza Strip in response – have caused lasting hurt and anger. Scores of Labour councillors, including in Lancashire, have resigned. Labour MPs have been abused in their constituencies and some have received death threats. Others are no longer welcome to visit mosques.

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“Because this is a referendum on Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak on Gaza, for a moment, a day, Rochdale becomes the most important election in the world,” Galloway told me before a campaign-team pit stop at Shish, one of the finest local kebab shops. He wore his signature black fedora, Ray-Ban specs and brown Chelsea boots, a Palestinian flag pinned to the lapel of his dark jacket.

“If there’s unanimity in the whole town, it’s that Labour suck – people think that from different perspectives, whether it’s the grooming gangs or the shambles in the town hall, the whole town rejects Labour.”

Evoking the horror of the grooming gangs is a classic of the late Galloway style: appealing to the disquiet of white working-class voters who have been overlooked by mainstream local and national politicians. In January, a damning review found young girls were “left at the mercy” of paedophile grooming gangs from 2004 to 2013 in Rochdale, as Greater Manchester Police and Rochdale Council failed to protect them. After years of Lib Dem dominance, the council has been run by Labour since 2011. Nine British Asian men were convicted in 2012 for sexually abusing white working-class girls in the town. There were similar cases in English towns from Rotherham to Bristol.

In this context, Galloway has honed a populist rhetoric aimed at white audiences. “The white community is disenfranchised too,” a member of his team told me. I remember shadowing his activists out canvassing in Batley in June 2021, two years before the invasion of Gaza. He was using anti-woke language in whiter, more Conservative areas, while decrying violence against Palestinians to the town’s Muslims. (Occasionally, the messaging would muddle and baffled Tory voters would open the door to, “A vote for Labour is a vote for Israel!”)

If he wins in Rochdale, Galloway will be the only MP with “a mandate” to speak up for an “immediate and complete ceasefire, followed by Israeli withdrawal from the territory”, he told me, and for “the world to impose a solution on Israel”.

He went on: “I will be going in with a gale of a mandate – a gale of a mandate – behind me, and they’ll feel it. You know me, I can speak, and I’ll be speaking not just for the voters in Rochdale but for millions of people up and down the country.”

With its neo-Gothic town hall and faded civic grandeur, Rochdale is haunted by what it once was – a mighty industrial force in the high Victorian days of empire. The river Roch runs through the town and plastic bags float in waterways that once powered the cotton mills. Today, some abandoned mills are covered with “to let” signs, their chimneys mingling with tower blocks and minarets across the Pennine horizon.

In recent years, Rochdale, birthplace of the cooperative movement, has been the setting of British political betrayal. It was here during the 2010 general election campaign that the prime minister, Gordon Brown, was overheard calling a local widowed pensioner, Gillian Duffy – to whom he had been introduced earlier that afternoon – a “bigoted woman”; she had unsettled him by asking about east European migration, among other policies. It was here that local politicians were accused of overlooking the grooming gang dominated by men of Pakistani and Afghani heritage. It was here that there was “overwhelming evidence” according to Greater Manchester Police that the renowned Liberal MP Cyril Smith, a large character who represented the town for 20 years, had abused boys. And it was here that, four years ago, a boy of two called Awaab Ishak died of exposure to mould in his family’s housing association flat.

Now, after the death of its Labour MP Tony Lloyd, Rochdale is once more a site of strife – and the nation is watching. Labour’s original parliamentary candidate and the leader of the opposition on Lancashire County Council, Azhar Ali, has been disowned by the party for complaining about “certain Jewish quarters” in the media. He also voiced the conspiracy theory that Israel brought the Hamas attacks on itself as part of a larger plan to invade Gaza. The Green Party candidate, Guy Otten, was dropped for derogatory remarks about Islam. He is no longer standing. (Both will appear on the ballot paper beside the name and logo of their respective parties; it was too late to change them.)

Graham Jones, the former Labour MP for Hyndburn, was also suspended as a parliamentary candidate in his old seat, which neighbours Rochdale, for swearing about Israel and calling for British citizens who fight on its behalf to be locked up. Another Labour councillor, Munsif Dad, of Hyndburn, is being “spoken to” by the party for undisclosed reasons. The Liberal Democrats have suspended one of their Rochdale Council candidates for campaigning for Galloway.

So who’s left? A clutch of independents, representing single issues ranging from justice for grooming victims to Just Stop Oil. The Lib Dem Iain Donaldson, who hopes to resurrect the once-proud liberal tradition of the town (“I’m a liberal – I always see a liberal revival on the horizon!” he told me). The Conservative, Paul Ellison, who didn’t have time to see me. Then there is none other than Simon Danczuk, the former MP for Rochdale and the third ex-Labour politician on the ballot paper. Danczuk was expelled by Labour in 2015 following allegations that he sent explicit messages to a 17-year-old girl. He now lives between Rochdale and Pimlico in central London with his third wife, Coco, a 29-year-old Rwandan beauty therapist whom he married in Kigali last year. He is the candidate for the populist-right party Reform UK, formerly the Brexit Party under the leadership of Nigel Farage (who is the honorary president of Reform).

Residents in Rochdale are fed up. Repeatedly, I was told by lifelong voters that this would be the first election in which they opted to stay at home. “I look at the list of people to vote for and I just don’t trust any of them,” said Tony, 65, a Mancunian who has lived in the town for 40 years and managed his own cleaning company until he fell ill and had to retire last year.

He was shocked at how little support he was receiving from the benefits system, using it for the first time having “paid in all my life”: just £60 leftover each month after his rent had gone out. “It’s just not right, and if you look at the state of the town, it’s like nobody cares about us.” When I met him, he was on the way to the soup kitchen.

“I’ve always voted Labour but I’m not sure of the point when they’ve sacked their candidate. I don’t agree with what he said about Israel doing it to themselves, but I do think what’s happening is wrong and it shouldn’t be an eye for an eye, especially when it’s kids getting killed. But I don’t know who to vote for to change that.”

Other voters, notably in the parts of town with larger Asian demographics, were motivated to vote for Galloway because of the war in Gaza. On Tweedale Street, a thoroughfare of halal butchers, cash-and-carries stacked with tubs of ghee and sacks of lentils, Hajj travel agents and clothes shops hung with embroidered dupattas, the face of Galloway appeared grinning from countless posters. “I’ve always supported Labour because my mum and dad support Labour but this time I’m going to vote for George Galloway,” said Haroon Ali, 25, who worked in a sweet shop glistening with coils of amber jalebi. “He’s the best person to stick up for Palestine in parliament.”

Labour’s deserted campaign office was a short walk away on Oldham Road, opposite a retail park, its shutters rattling in the wind. Labour members are not permitted to campaign for Ali, although I heard from numerous sources on the ground that he has a small team of allies rattling around in a car trying to drum up support and even sending emails in Urdu asking for votes. Bearing his face, posters circling on social media claim he was “sacked by Starmer for speaking on Palestine” but have not been officially attributed to his campaign. I’ve repeatedly tried contacting Ali to confirm all of this, with no response. “I am in a meeting… please text if urgent,” was all he offered when I asked to speak.

After Ali’s initial comments about Israel were leaked, it took Keir Starmer and the Labour leadership 48 hours to withdraw party support for him. Ali – a former adviser on extremism to Tony Blair and supporter of Louise Ellman, a Jewish ex-Labour MP subjected to anti-Semitic abuse – was not immediately expelled (some Labour figures suspect this was because he was considered a moderate from the right of the party). But, according to one source who had worked closely with him and known him for 30 years, his comments “weren’t a surprise at all – in fact, this kind of thing is a commonly held view among some in the Labour membership. The idea that Starmer has got rid of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is nonsense.”

Illustration by Nate Kitch

Higher up in the foothills to the east of Rochdale town centre is the settlement of Milnrow on the River Beal. This is a more affluent part of the constituency, and it was here that I encountered Simon Danczuk on the campaign trail. Dressed in a smart blue suit with silver cufflinks and his initials stitched into his shirt cuffs, he was accompanied by his diligent 15-year-old son and other Reform UK activists. His pitch rested on being from “Nigel Farage’s party”, as he put it, and “if you don’t want Galloway to get in, I’m your man”.

Most voters in Milnrow were polite but undecided, disillusioned by a by-election that didn’t seem to be offering them a serious choice. “I’d rather vote for Satan than for anything to do with Farage,” one middle-aged man said, apologetically, taking a leaflet. Others seemed disturbed by the idea of Galloway as their MP. Some knew Danczuk by name, remembering when he was their MP from 2010 to 2017, and greeted him warmly. (His past misdemeanour, which he dismissed as blown out of all proportion, comes up “a little bit on the doorstep, but it’s not an issue”.)

Sitting down in the Hornet, a roadside pub, Danczuk charted his political journey from Labour to the outfit now led by the Brexiteer businessman Richard Tice. “The Labour Party’s left me. I describe myself as ‘traditional Labour’, which I always have,” he said. “Strong on tackling illegal immigration and challenging people to get into work. This north-London Labour elite – Starmer, Lammy, Miliband, etc – their message has gone totally away from that. The Labour Party used to be about work, and now it’s about woke.”

Perhaps one of the earliest adopters of the “metropolitan liberal elite” attacks on what was then his own party, Danczuk was alongside Brown the afternoon the latter called Duffy a “bigoted woman”, and later became friends with her. (He has spoken to her about this by-election but told me he wasn’t “sure where she stands on Labour” these days. I was unable to contact her to ask her myself.)

In 2014, I followed Danczuk – then a vocal back-bench critic of the Labour leader Ed Miliband – as he toured Rochdale cheerily salaam-ing locals and meeting community leaders for tea. Addressing racial tensions in the town was key, he said then, to “take the wind out of the sails of the extreme right”. Now, he seemed less optimistic. “Rochdale really shows how multiculturalism has been a complete failure. We should have had far more integration; that’s the conclusion I have reached.”

When I pressed him for a policy on this, however, he reverted to his focus on tackling burglary rates and improving transport links. Having visited Palestine twice, before and during his time as MP, Danczuk said he knew the issues well and accused others of “exploiting the awful situation in Gaza”. “My priority is putting Rochdale first,” he said.

The question for Rochdale’s beleaguered voters (“Why is it always Rochdale?” as one lamented) is whether anyone has been putting them first. There once was a time when the world relied on the northern mill towns of England for their weavers. But it hasn’t repaid them. A globalised economy of cheap goods and labour has left them deindustrialised and under-skilled. And conflict in the Middle East shakes their diaspora groups.

A safe Labour seat with a near-10,000 majority, surviving the fall of the so-called Red Wall across the north and Midlands, Rochdale has seldom had the best of the party.

“Now let us look at the Labour Party, the mighty giant built up from the cap-wearing ‘Keir Hardies’… its chief wire-pullers are becoming more and more middle-class climbers and disgruntled Liberals… We must thank them for the sunshine, for our babies and certainly for our wonderful English mother-in-laws,” wrote the plasterer-writer Jack Hilton, known as Rochdale’s lost Orwell, in his 1935 book Caliban Shrieks. “They stand on the foundation stone of democracy, a democracy of painfully shallow plates.”

As dusk fell on Broadfield Park, in the centre of Rochdale, one politician remained defiant. A statue of John Bright looked out at the nearby hills rising above his birthplace. One of the great Victorian free traders and liberals, Bright is perhaps best remembered in parliamentary history for his appeal to the House of Commons against the Crimean War: “The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings.” It was a speech delivered in vain then, and now, with tens of thousands dead abroad, the angel’s wings return to beat our fractured land.

[See also: How indecision turned toxic for Labour in Rochdale]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation

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