Rochdale loyalties tested by George Galloway's Labour challenge on Gaza policy

Flamboyant MP tells The National his by-election victory was a signal that British Muslims could provide a significant general election upset

George Galloway in Rochdale. The MP has told The National that his election heralded the 'British political spring' with Muslims demonstrating they had a voice in Britain, although he faces a battle to keep his seat in the upcoming general election. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

Rochdale, says its current MP George Galloway, will be remembered as the place where Britain’s Muslims saw that there was a new way of finding a political voice.

His view, although bound with self-interest, was certainly borne out during The National’s visit to the once prosperous northern England town where the Muslim vote appeared resolute for the outspoken politician who has spent a lifetime supporting Palestinians.

But his two-month stint as the former mill town’s MP could end if Labour can convince enough voters that its plans to help Palestinians once in office are genuine.

Speaking in Rochdale as he campaigns for a new term, he labelled Mr Starmer’s support for Israel in Gaza a “catastrophe” but this campaign was mild compared to others he has run as a Labour Party maverick turned independent campaigner.

Having been expelled from Labour for telling British troops not to obey “illegal orders” in the 2003 Iraq invasion, he stood for the Respect party in Bethnal Green, East London, in the 2005 general election. His defeated rival Oona King later told the BBC that she had faced abuse during the campaign.

“I was fairly shocked by the levels to which it sank,” she said, although her opponent’s camp called this a smear.

Mr Galloway was not elected in the 2010 general election but two years later he stood in a by-election in Bradford West, another heavily Muslim constituency that he won. The surprise populist anti-war campaign victory entrenched Mr Galloway's brand of politics, pitched to Arab causes with a left-wing agenda tagged on the side.

While he lost the seat in 2015, Mr Galloway could rely on his TV outlets, including Iran's Press TV and when it was removed by the UK regulator Ofcom Russia Today, where he hosted political discussions that again tore holes in the established parties. His show, now called Mother of All Talk Shows (MOATS), still goes out on YouTube where he has a loyalist following.

British upheaval

Rochdale is instantly remarkable for its diversity of people from Asian Muslims, most notably Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, to West Africans and a core of Polish, as well as its English population.

Its 21,000 Muslim voters who make up a quarter of the voting population propelled Mr Galloway to a by-election victory in February, helped by Labour’s candidate being dismissed for claiming that Israel had allowed Hamas’s October 7 attacks as a pretext to invade Gaza.

While the stars were well aligned for him then, Mr Galloway argues that this was a watershed moment for British Muslims.

“Rochdale is a turning point in British politics in that people know that they can fight back, that their vote can mean something,” he told The National at his constituency office.

“Rochdale is now known as having been the place where a ‘British political spring’ was born, where for the first time the big parties were soundly beaten for their crimes not the least of which was their involvement in Gaza.”

Street power

That empowerment is born out on the streets, where market stall traders and high street shops have to compete with a major commercial shopping mall.

“We are supporting George because he raised the visibility of Palestinians while Gaza is being destroyed,” said Nadeem Arshad, 35, a double-glazing engineer. “Before, everyone supported Labour but they have done nothing for Gaza or the Palestinians. Labour has really disappointed us.”

His views were echoed by machinist Bozvir Rasheed, 55, originally from Bangladesh, who argued that “we need George for this job” as he was “a good fit for us working people, Asians and the Middle East”.

Farage's mirror

Opposition leader Keir Starmer’s initial backing for Israel meant Mr Galloway’s Workers Party will “eat Labour from the left” just as the populist, anti-immigrant politician Nigel Farage “is eating the Conservatives from the right”, he said.

“We'll win seats or directly affect results in scores, maybe hundreds of others,” he claimed, including deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner’s Tameside constituency where her 5,000 majority would be undermined by his 10,000 voters.

“Frankly I’d be surprised if any of Britain’s three million Muslim voters voted for Labour,” he added.

But Mr Galloway will certainly have to fight to hold on to his seat with Labour no longer in the disarray of February. It has selected the respected Westminster journalist, Paul Waugh, who was born and raised in Rochdale.

Mr Waugh opened his campaign by calling for the suspension of UK arms sales to Israel and stating he would “unite all our communities” in Rochdale.

“I care deeply about Gaza,” he told The National. “Labour wants an immediate ceasefire on both sides to end the suffering. Furthermore, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has been outspoken in calling for Israel to halt its appalling offensive in Rafah.”

He added that the city was “proud of its vibrant Muslim communities” who were a “vital part of Rochdale’s rich history of diversity”.

UK general election campaigning - in pictures

Many would return to Labour, he argued, because the party had “delivered on bread and butter issues” such as health, education and housing.

The Labour candidate will also be supported by people like former soldier and postman Arthur Gardiner, 66, who stated that “we've got to worry about this country” and that focusing on a single issue such as Gaza was “a bad way to mobilise your support”.

“I don’t think Galloway will get an easy ride and I think the Labour candidate is strong and will step forward.”

He also cited illegal drugs as a “massive issue” and the poverty-stricken areas of the 1,000-year-old city that nestles among the hills of the south Pennines, a short distance from Manchester.

Election controversy

Repeating by-election triumph is not so far something Mr Galloway has done in general elections. Just weeks ago he overturned a Labour majority of nearly 10,000 securing 40 per cent of the vote at the by-election in Rochdale.

It was not the first time he had outflanked his former party – he was Labour MP for a Glasgow seat for 18 years and then took two other seats under his own labels by running almost exclusively using issues thrown up by Middle East politics to win.

In Bethnal Green in 2005 his Labour opponent was Oona King, whose mother was a Jew, in which she alleged that workers for his Respect Party campaign had told Muslim voters “not to vote for me because I am Jewish”, something Mr Galloway denied.

During the bitter 2005 campaign, that he won by 823 votes, Mr Galloway responded to a question over why he was standing against one of only two black women MPs. He stated that as a Labour MP who was for the Iraq invasion Ms King had “voted to kill a lot of women in the last few years, many of them had much darker skins than her”.

In the 2012 by-election hat campaign there was concerns raised over sectarianism and the use of the Pakistani Baradari “brotherhood” network to win votes.

Meeting Saddam

Since meeting the PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Lebanon in the late 70s, Mr Galloway has been an ardent pro-Palestinian supporter.

This led him to meeting Iraqi government officials and the autocratic president Saddam Hussein to campaign against oil sanctions imposed by America.

In one meeting Mr Galloway told the president “sir, I salute your courage…and I want you to know that we are with you until victory, until Jerusalem”.

He denied receiving illicit payments from Iraq in money diverted from its oil-for-food programme, that included a robust defence before a US Senate hearing in 2005.

A strong critic of Israel, the politician was involved in 2010 Viva Palestina convoy of 137 vehicles that broke the blockade of Gaza, delivering $5 million of aid to the Hamas government.

A year before he lost his seat in Bradford, Mr Galloway suffered serious head injuries after he was assaulted by a Jewish convert opposed to his pro-Palestinian views.

Conscription blues

Currently the polling company Electoral Calculus give Mr Waugh a 69 per cent chance of retaking the seat with Mr Galloway a 4 per cent chance of holding it.

The Conservatives have a 16 per cent chance, although Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s policy announcement for national service might prove a hindrance.

Despite joining up with the Royal Air Force in September, Luke Crompton, 18, argued that the possible introduction of conscription had turned a lot of young voters off.

“They don’t want to vote Conservative because of conscription forcing them into the military for a year,” he said.

He also decried Britain’s two-party dominant system “like America” and labelled Rishi Sunak a “fat cat” while Keir Starmer was “someone who thinks he’s Tony Blair and talks nonsense”.

Tory fight

Despite the Conservatives trailing Labour by 20 points in the polls, the Tory candidate Paul Ellison still stands that one in six chance of winning, in the city that still retains some of the affluence at the heart of northern England’s woollen trade.

While “it was terrible what’s going on in Gaza” Mr Ellison wanted to focus on local issues such as tackling drug gangs.

He also referred to Rochdale’s notorious under-age sex trafficking scandal among men of mainly Pakistani origin exposed in 2012, stating that the negative press had seen “the Muslim community feel the brunt of that unfairly”.

While the town has not elected a Conservative since 1951, there remains some stalwart support. Graham Hoyle, 78, a retired engineer, said he did not trust any other party other than the Tories.

“I think Rishi Sunak has done an alright job, he’s positive and good as a leader but George Galloway has done nothing for this town.”

Mr Ellison agreed that “Galloway has had no impact” while Mr Waugh stated he “talks a lot but achieves little”.

Rochdale Pope

But Mr Galloway claimed he had put Rochdale back on the map “in a good way rather than all the bad reasons with the grooming scandal”.

He also boasted of achieving something no other MP had done, which was to get the Pope to repeat the word “Rochdale” in his prayers.

“I had an audience with Pope Francis and asked him to pray for Gaza and Rochdale and he repeated the word Rochdale back to me,” he said.

That might be the last momentous moment of his career as the MP who has represented four constituencies told The National he will not stand again after this election.

Updated: June 13, 2024, 9:42 AM