How George Galloway spliced Gaza turmoil with fast fashion to win over Rochdale

Experts say firebrand politician's win using Gaza can not be ignored

Promotional signs in Rochdale for Workers Party candidate George Galloway. AFP
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At almost 70, with his previous election victory more than a decade past and his profile pushed even further to the fringes of British politics, a few months ago it would have seemed improbable that rabble-rouser George Galloway had a hope of making yet another comeback.

But a perfect storm of factors that destroyed the traditional Labour vote and prevented rivals making headway cleared a path for the 69-year-old to be able to parachute into Rochdale and win a convincing majority in Thursday's by-election.

Despite his four decades in politics being littered with controversy, voters were given a rogues' gallery of options to vote for.

Rochdale has been beset by scandal, campaigns have imploded and the candidate for the Workers Party of Britain seized his opportunity.

Campaign tactics

Mr Galloway used his tried-and-tested campaign strategy to woo voters.

The veteran politician was able to target a deprived town with a large Muslim population by combining the conflict in Gaza with hyper local issues such as maternity services, the fortunes of the local football team and the town’s desire for better shops.

It may paint a depressing picture of how the cost-of-living crisis facing Britain led to a firebrand politician like Mr Galloway being able to win votes by offering the budget fashion store Primark as a prize, but it worked.

Galloway is very good at generating noise and publicity. This is his modus operandi and it has been successful again
Joe Twyman, Deltapoll

Tony Blair's former political secretary, John McTernan, believes his use of promising to “get a Primark for Rochdale” alongside Gaza can not be ignored.

“It surely tells us a lot. For one, there is now a real expression in parliament of the country’s desire for a ceasefire in Gaza – which our parliament has totally failed to channel,” he said.

Co-founder and director of the public opinion consultancy Deltapoll, Joe Twyman, said Mr Galloway’s well-oiled campaigning machine was able to make the most of the Gaza issue while not ignoring local factors.

He said Mr Galloway’s campaign leaflets to the Muslim community focused on Gaza and to other areas it was local issues, such as health services and high-street regeneration.

“George Galloway has always been a fine, strong orator,” he said.

“In [previous by-elections in] Bradford and Bethnal Green he had some success mobilising some sections of the Muslim community. The situation in Gaza provides him with a perfect opportunity to do that. He has used it in Rochdale to target Muslims angered at the situation in Gaza.

“Galloway is very good at generating noise and publicity. This is his modus operandi and it has been successful again.”

Open door without Labour

It is now the seventh time Mr Galloway has been elected to parliament.

His victory underlines the divisions in Britain over the Israel-Hamas war, which is in its fifth month and has brought protesters on to British streets in support of both sides.

Mr Galloway won 12,335 votes compared with 6,638 for second-placed David Tully, an independent candidate.

The former Labour candidate, Azhar Ali, came fourth after the opposition party pulled its support for him after he was recorded espousing conspiracy theories about Israel.

Mr Twyman told The National that a "lack of knowledge and understanding" of who Mr Galloway is could have aided him, alongside the fact the Labour Party was forced to cut ties with its own candidate.

He doubted Mr Galloway would have made such inroads if Labour had been able to campaign properly.

Rogues' gallery of candidates

Historically a Labour seat, the by-election should have offered up an easy task for the party to win again, until its candidate, Mr Ali, suggested Israel was complicit in the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

It left the party with no option but to withdraw its support and they were taken out of the running.

"It has been a difficult situation for Labour to deal with but it has been all of their own creation because they didn't sufficiently vet their own candidate," Mr Twyman said.

Other remaining candidates included 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 was also forced to withdraw its support of its candidate Guy Otten after he reportedly criticised Islam and the Gaza conflict.

When The National visited Rochdale earlier in the week, voters repeatedly said they felt let down at the selection of candidates.

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

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

Past controversies

A former Labour politician, Mr Galloway 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 was not 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”.

No national impact

Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester, Robert Ford, said Mr Galloway’s victory is likely to be short-lived.

“Rochdale has been used as a football in an argument about Islam and Gaza,” he told The National.

“What happened there will not have a meaning nationally. People will try to interpret this result but the circumstances there have been so strange, the list of candidates was so strange. It is not representative of the national picture.

“He ran it on Gaza versus domestic issues. He does two things: uses an external foreign policy issue with a broader focus on a local issue. He has done the same in Rochdale.”

Mr Twyman told The National: “I do not think this result will damage a general election.

“The specific local factors here would be difficult to replicate. But it is the worst-case scenario for Labour as it gives publicity to George Galloway who consistently has been a thorn in the side of past Labour administrations.

“But in the long term it is difficult to see how this could have a significant impact on a general election but there is no doubt that in the meantime, Galloway will remain in the public eye and will be lapping up the publicity.”

Galloway's 'divisive' campaign

The leader of right-wing Reform UK, Richard Tice, said the campaign had been marred by intimidation and abuse of his party's candidate and campaigners, describing the vote as a "shameful contest ... more characteristic of a failed state". His party's candidate came sixth.

Alan Mendosa, director of think tank the Henry Jackson Society Alan, told The National Mr Galloway ran a “divisive” campaign that will raise alarm bells nationally.

“While George Galloway’s victory obviously owed something to the Labour candidate being disowned by his party over anti-Semitism, his margin of victory will alarm anyone in the UK concerned about the rise of sectarian politics,” he said.

“Galloway’s winning message was hateful and divisive on the issue of Gaza and he placed it front and centre of his campaign to appeal to a specific section of the local population.

“If others start following this trend and pandering to local opinion rather than upholding principled national interests, Galloway’s victory could portend a sea change in British politics and the way this country has historically seen itself.”

Rochdale by-election: George Galloway storms to victory - in pictures

Updated: March 01, 2024, 3:40 PM