Rochdale by-election: George Galloway storms to victory declaring 'this is for Gaza'

Veteran politician won a 6,000 majority over his nearest rival

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Controversial left-wing politician George Galloway made a triumphant return to Westminster on Friday after winning the Rochdale by-election with a campaign focused on Gaza.

As the votes came in, Mr Galloway declared “this is for Gaza”.

The vote underlined how the Israel-Gaza war has stoked community tension and sowed division across British politics.

Using Gaza as a divisive tool, Mr Galloway became an unexpected frontrunner in the chaotic campaign in which many of his opponents were hit by scandals.

As a result experts do not believe the result will be a true reflection of what the future holds for a general election. Polls put Labour on course to oust the Conservatives after 14 years in power.

But the Rochdale vote, which was prompted by the death of veteran Labour MP Tony Lloyd, ends a run of thumping by-election victories by Keir Starmer’s Labour Party over Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Tories.

Mr Galloway, of the Workers Party of Britain, won a 6,000 majority over his nearest rival in the by-election, then turned his ire on the Labour leader.

This is the third time he has taken a seat off his former party.

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 constituencies had large Muslim populations.

As dozens of supporters chanted “Gall-o-way! Gall-o-way!” outside the count at Rochdale Leisure Centre, inside the winner took to the podium to speak.

His victory speech was interrupted by a heckler accusing him of being a “climate change denier” before she was drowned out by shouts from his supporters, and confetti was thrown at him

Mr Galloway said: “Keir Starmer – this is for Gaza. And you will pay a high price, in enabling, encouraging and covering for the catastrophe presently going on in occupied Palestine in the Gaza Strip.”

Mr Galloway said Rochdale, once a prosperous industrial town, had been badly let down and was now one of the poorest.

He was able to tap into local discontent at the closure of maternity services in the town and the troubled status of the football club, Rochdale AFC, alongside focusing on international issues.

But he soon returned to party politics.

“I want to tell Mr Starmer above all, that the plates have shifted tonight,” he said.

“Beginning here in the north-west, in the West Midlands, in London, from Ilford to Bethnal Green and Bow, Labour is on notice that they have lost the confidence of millions of their voters who loyally and traditionally voted for them, generation after generation.”

Labour apologises

After the result, the Labour party apologised to the town.

“We deeply regret that the Labour party was unable to field a candidate in this by-election and apologise to the people of Rochdale. George Galloway only won because Labour did not stand," it said.

“Rochdale deserved the chance to vote for an MP that would bring communities together and deliver for working people. George Galloway is only interested in stoking fear and division. As an MP he will be a damaging force in our communities and public life.

“The Labour party will quickly begin the process to select a new Labour candidate for the general election, and will be campaigning hard to deliver the representation and fresh start that Rochdale deserves.”

Mr Galloway won 12,335 votes, or 39.65 per cent of the vote. Azhar Ali, a candidate for the Labour party until he was dropped over comments about the war in Gaza, was fourth after getting 2,402 votes.

David Tully, an independent, was second with 6,638 votes. Paul Ellison, for the UK’s governing Conservative Party, came in third and received 3,731 votes. Liberal Democrat Iain Donaldson was fifth and Simon Danczuk finished sixth for Reform UK.

The result will add to the sense of disarray in British politics that has been fuelled by Hamas’s attack on Israel in October, which has led to a surge in reports of antisemitic and Islamophobic hate crimes and put a major strain on parliament.

That political backdrop hung over campaigning in Rochdale, a former mill town near Manchester with a large Muslim population that had been held by Labour since 2010.

When a recording emerged of Mr Ali repeating a conspiracy theory that Israel was complicit in the October 7 attack by Hamas, Labour dropped him as a candidate, leaving the field wide open for smaller parties to capitalise.

The turmoil was tailor made for Mr Galloway, 69, who has made a career out of whipping up division, especially in areas with substantial Muslim populations.

He quickly became the favourite to win, and he directed his criticism at Labour and Mr Starmer for not taking a tougher line on Israel.

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”.

Labour's loss of Rochdale seat was 'self-inflicted'

Momentum, a left-wing pressure group, described Labour’s Rochdale by-election defeat as “self-inflicted”.

A spokesperson for the group said: “This was a needless and self-inflicted loss for Labour.

“First, [Labour leader Sir Keir] Starmer’s utterly factional selection processes resulted in a candidate who was clearly unfit for office. Then the Labour leadership tried to defend him as one of their own.

“Finally, Keir Starmer’s failure to stand with Gaza in its hour of need left the door open for George Galloway.

“To avoid any more damaging repeats, Starmer should end the factional abuse of Labour’s selection processes and stand up for an immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza.”

Allen Brett, former Labour council leader for the town, said he did not vote for Mr Galloway because he does “not think he’s true Rochdale”.

“I don’t think Mr Galloway would have won if Labour had a candidate,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today show.

John McTernan, who served as former prime minister Tony Blair’s director of political operations, told the show the result was a judgment on parliament’s failure to call for an immediate ceasefire.

“This was a judgment, in some way, on last week's parliament, the lack of the ability of the UK parliament to come to a position that most people in Britain believe about Israel-Gaza, that there should be an immediate ceasefire, humanitarian ceasefire. “There should be an end to the killings in Gaza. This is an expression of that.”

The Rochdale campaign has been mired in controversy and claims of intimidation and divisive tactics.

Reform UK’s leader Richard Tice claimed his candidate, former Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk, had received a death threat during the campaign and said his party’s campaign team had been subject to “daily intimidation and slurs”.

But Mr Galloway denied his supporters had engaged in any intimidation.

The Campaign Against Anti-Semitism charity fears Mr Galloway's return will stoke future tensions.

“George Galloway has an atrocious record of baiting the Jewish community,” a spokesperson said.

“Given his historic inflammatory rhetoric and the current situation faced by the Jewish community in this country, we are extremely concerned by how he may use the platform of the House of Commons in the remaining months of this parliament.”

Updated: March 01, 2024, 3:38 PM