Resonate and win: George Galloway's Gaza strategy in Rochdale by-election

Maverick veteran who once praised Saddam Hussein is frontrunner as Labour hits trouble

Workers Party of Britain candidate George Galloway is campaigning on Gaza to win new voters in the Rochdale by-election. PA
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Update: George Galloway wins Rochdale by-election

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It was campaign posters of maverick politician George Galloway in the windows of Rochdale’s terraced homes that first caught Iqra Khan’s eye.

The 19 year old, like many other youngsters in the northern English town of Rochdale, knew nothing of the left-wing politician.

But after his leaflet dropped through her letterbox, she decided to cast her first vote for him in tomorrow’s by-election.

“I have never heard of him before, now but he seems like a guy who gets things done,” Ms Khan told The National.

He has been going around places that resonate with the Muslim community
Mehek Naseer, student

Large banners flutter outside Mr Galloway's campaign office, which is being run from a Suzuki dealership outside Rochdale town centre.

Many have been impressed with the Scotsman’s campaign, unaware of his past controversies.

“He’s really making an effort,” Saba Afzal, 24, told The National. “My friend saw him in the chicken shop and I know he’s been seen in coffee shops. It’s nice he’s making an effort going into local businesses.

“He seems all right, I think he’s got his head screwed on. He is not all talk.”

Death of sitting MP

The Rochdale by-election was triggered by the death of Labour MP Tony Lloyd last month.

He won the seat in 2017 with a 9,668 majority.

Historically a Labour seat, it should have offered up an easy task for the party to win again, until its candidate Azhar Ali suggested Israel was complicit in the October 7 attacks by Hamas, which killed about 1,200 people.

It left the party with no option but to withdraw its support.

His name still remains on the ballot but Labour are out of the running.

The by-election has become an embarrassment for the town. Other remaining candidates include Simon Danczuk for Reform UK – he was previously suspended from the Labour Party for sending explicit messages to a 17-year-old girl and blocked from standing again.

The Green Party has also been forced to withdraw its support of its candidate Guy Otten after he reportedly criticised Islam and the Gaza conflict.

With so many of his opponents hit by scandals, Mr Galloway has emerged as an unexpected frontrunner in the vote.

A former Labour politician, he was expelled from the party in 2003 for attacking Tony Blair over the Second Gulf War, labelling the leadership “a blood-splattered, lying, crooked group of criminals”.

It wasn’t his only brush with controversy. He sparked outrage after he was filmed telling Saddam Hussein: “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”

It earned him the title of “MP for Baghdad Central” from his political foes.

In 2009, he set up the Viva Palestina charity to run aid convoys to Gaza. But in 2013, an investigation by Britain's charity watchdog found “little or no evidence that humanitarian aid was distributed to those in need”.

In 2019, he was sacked by British radio station TalkRadio amid accusations of anti-Semitism over a social media post directed at Tottenham Hotspur, a football club with traditionally strong support among the Jewish community.

After the club’s defeat in the Uefa Champions League final, Mr Galloway said there would be “no Israel flags on the cup”.

Will 2024 be Mr Galloway’s year?

His four decades in politics have been littered with controversy and, to many, it was doubtful a year ago that could return to Westminster.

Winning Rochdale would be a major coup for him.

He has previously had electoral success when he took two seats off Labour when standing for the Respect Party, in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012, both of which had large Muslim populations.

A long-standing supporter of Palestine, Mr Galloway has been utilising the conflict between Israel and Gaza to help champion his cause as he bids to woo the town’s 30,000 Muslim population.

His previous attempt at campaigning on Gaza to win votes failed two years ago, when he lost his bid to become the MP for Batley and Spen.

Back then anti-racism group Hope Note Hate accused him of running a “divisive” campaign.

“Galloway has no solutions, just division,” it said.

But since the October 7 attack on Israel, Gaza is now to the fore and Mr Galloway is capitalising on it to rally support for his campaign – and it’s working.

“The poor people of Rochdale do not deserve this. It is not the first time they have had a rogues' gallery of people representing them,” Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, told The National.

“Galloway has been building a brand persona for over 30 years as a radical-left firebrand and he is very effective on the campaign trail. He is a polariser and is very good at tapping into resentments that impact the Muslim community.

"He has perfected his model campaign strategy. In 2005 in Bethnal Green he mobilised the Muslims there on the issue of Iraq and again in Bradford in 2012.

“He is a rabble rouser, a tension stoker, a populist who tells people who feel they are not being listened to that ‘I am your voice’. But what did he do for Bethnal? Nothing. For Bradford? Nothing. And he will do nothing for Rochdale.

“He is only interested in unhappy, deprived communities as a vehicle for his political ambition. He is a very talented but destructive force. He will not do anything to solve any problems and often makes them worse.”

Back on the streets of Rochdale, Ms Khan is among those who have been won over by Mr Galloway’s charm.

“We don’t feel like we have many options in the election having seen the other candidates,” she said.

“George Galloway looks like he will change things."

Her comments were echoed by Zack Iqbal.

“People care about Palestine,” he said. “I think he has a good chance of winning here. The Muslim community like him.”

Ms Afzal said people are disillusioned with Labour and the mainstream parties and hopes Mr Galloway will make a difference.

“We used to vote Labour but they haven’t done much for the town, everything is a mess and still the same,” she said.

But others are less optimistic.

Student Mehek Naseer, 19, said: “I think George Galloway has such a big following due to the Muslim community. He has been going around places that resonate with the Muslim community. He is popular because he talks about the freedom of Palestinians.

“I think people might think he is full of empty promises, though, we have seen how he let people down when he was an MP in Bradford. Some people think he is using Gaza as a political tool to get back into power.”

Shop worker Dave Akester, 43, described Mr Galloway as “a chancer”.

“We not really have a lot of choice,” he said. “I think Labour would have got in but with them out of the running it is all to play for.

"I don’t think he’ll get in, though. He’s picked Rochdale to try his luck again. We want someone who will look after our interests and the town. Galloway just has his own agenda.”

Mr Galloway's team believes 15,000 votes are enough to win most by-elections – and Rochdale has an Asian community of double that number.

“We are not taking anything for granted,” Mr Galloway has said.

“[I am] confident but not complacent.”

Farah Khan, who previously supported Labour, she feels her town has been let down.

“I don’t think there has been a dull day in this by-election yet, every one of the candidates has done something,” she said.

“To go from someone as amazing as our former MP Tony Lloyd to what is on offer now is such a shame.

“Tony’s funeral only happened recently and it must be very sad for his family to see what is happening here. He was cool, calm and collected and to go from him to what we have on offer is sad.

“Galloway is presenting himself as a big defender of Muslims, his leaflets talk about Gaza. I really don’t know who to vote for. To go from a political giant like Tony to a character like Galloway is very bleak.”

But Prof Ford believes it is still all to play for.

“Polls have shown Palestine is important to Muslims but it is not at the top of their agenda compared to cost of living, the NHS and the economy,” he said. "A strong stance defending Palestine does not put bread on the table or pay the rent.

“Another poll suggested that people still thought Azhar Ali was still standing for Labour, people may have not heard what has happened and still think Labour has a candidate.

“Right now, Rochdale is being used as a football in an argument about Islam and Gaza.

"Who knows what will happen? I wouldn’t want to try to predict the result. There maybe a mystique about Galloway but we shouldn’t expect he has a magical power to win this.”

Updated: March 01, 2024, 1:43 PM