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1 March 2024updated 03 Jun 2024 12:50pm

Why George Galloway won the Rochdale by-election

The former Labour MP thrived by appealing to disaffected white voters as well as Muslim ones.

By Anoosh Chakelian

George Galloway, the veteran left-wing agitator, is returning to Westminster after winning a decisive victory in the Rochdale by-election. The former Labour MP, who stood for his own Workers Party, won 12,335 votes and a comfortable majority of 5,697 in the once-safe Labour seat – an old textile town in the foothills of the Pennines.

Azhar Ali, the candidate suspended by Labour earlier in the campaign for comments reflecting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, came fourth with just 2,402 votes – despite still being billed as a Labour candidate on the ballot.

Here are the results:

Workers Party of Britain: 39.7 per cent

David Tully (independent): 21.3 per cent

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Conservative: 12.0 per cent (-19.2)

Labour (suspended candidate): 7.7 per cent (-43.9)

Liberal Democrats: 7.0 per cent (-0.0)

Reform UK: 6.3 per cent (-1.8)

Galloway, who has triumphed over his former party twice before – in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012 (seats, like Rochdale, with a significant proportion of British Muslim voters) – said Keir Starmer had paid a “high price” for his stance on the war in Gaza.

What can such a fraught election – where the Green Party candidate was also suspended, for derogatory comments about Islam and Palestinians  – really tell us about UK politics?

Having visited Rochdale for last week’s issue of the New Statesman and spoken to a number of candidates and voters, my chief reflection is that the mainstream campaigns underestimated how well Galloway understood the voters of Rochdale. He even correctly calculated his main threat on the ground – when I asked his team about which candidates posed the biggest challenge, their response was David Tully: a local businessman who runs a family vehicle repair centre with his wife and son, and hadn’t previously been involved in politics. He came second with an impressive 6,638 votes. Reform UK’s Simon Danczuk, a former Labour MP for Rochdale, thought he was Galloway’s main rival but finished sixth. 

Galloway ran a predominantly pro-Palestinian campaign. His campaign literature and posters plastered all over town were printed in the colours of the Palestinian flag, and he put a lot of work into meetings with local Muslim groups, including private women’s meetings. Much of the talk at these events was about how Labour and the government were failing to call for an immediate ceasefire, neglecting Muslim voters and ignoring the plight of the Palestinians. These events were intense and visceral: there were tearful conversations about the murder of civilians at one I witnessed.

The hopes of Galloway’s rivals rested on Rochdalians putting bread-and-butter concerns first – housing (notoriously poor in the town, where a two-year-old boy died of exposure to mould), the high street, and crime. But from what I saw, Gaza was a motivating issue for a significant and engaged part of the electorate. The constituency has a 30 per cent Muslim population, but white British voters also mentioned it to me sympathetically: it had become the story of the campaign.

Voters wishing to prioritise local domestic issues and reject the populist who had come to town ignored Danczuk (who has name recognition, but is both associated with Labour and the “sexting” scandal that saw him ousted from the party) – and mostly shunned representatives of the main Westminster parties for independent candidate Tully. The latter’s pitch was “to sort what’s on my doorstep around me” and stop Rochdale’s reputation “being tarnished anymore”.

But crucially, Galloway’s approach – as I also witnessed in the Batley and Spen by-election three years ago, which Labour narrowly won – is to pitch to disaffected white voters too. In Rochdale, he used anti-woke talking points, and spoke about tackling grooming gangs: a racially tense aspect of the town’s recent history. He was also just as thunderous on local matters as Gaza: when we spoke, he took me through his key pitches, which he had just laid out to a 70-strong room of mainly British Pakistani women – to restore maternity and A&E services locally, bring a Primark and other big names to town, and reopen the open-air market.

Labour MPs had suggested privately that the disgraced Ali was still likely to win – that most voters were unlikely to be aware that he had been suspended. But turnout, at 39.7 per cent, wasn’t low by recent by-election standards and many voters I spoke to knew the lay of the land. I was also told that households received postal votes after Ali had been suspended, so even early voters would have had an opportunity to vote with knowledge of the whole story.

After Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election in 2021, the nadir of Keir Starmer’s leadership, its team was shaken up and campaign operation refreshed. A renewed confidence emerged within Labour’s electoral machine – following its narrow win in Batley two months later – that it knew how to handle a populist revolt from Galloway. Despite the unusual circumstances of the Rochdale by-election, this latest result suggests it doesn’t. Labour’s demand for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza during the course of the campaign didn’t change the result. It is vulnerable to left-wing protest votes from those who feel passionately about the horrors in Gaza: working-class Muslim communities, yes, but also young urban middle-class liberals.

“We’ll follow up the by-election with a major challenge in the council elections in May,” Galloway told me last week. “We intend to clean the townhall clock.” From his renewed berth in parliament, he now has a platform from which to continue his coup in other parts of the country. Whether he cleans up depends on how Labour responds now.

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