Palestine is the issue in Rochdale

The Labour party has already been dealt a bloody nose in the Rochdale by-election. George Galloway is looking to finish the job.

28 February 2024
George Galloway canvassing in Rochdale. (Photo: Christopher Furlong / Getty)

George Galloway canvassing in Rochdale. (Photo: Christopher Furlong / Getty)

Rochdale is no ordinary by-election.

Three weeks ago, the Labour party might have been confident about holding onto its seat in the former mill town, situated just ten miles north of Manchester.

Since then, the election has turned into a media firestorm, and a major headache for Keir Starmer.

Labour’s candidate, Azhar Ali, was recorded saying that Israel had “allowed” itself to be attacked as a pretext to invade Gaza. He also blamed media figures “from certain Jewish quarters” for the suspension of Andy McDonald MP.

Ali was subsequently dropped by the Labour party, but his name will still appear on the ballot paper under its banner – it’s too late to select a new candidate.

Worse still for Starmer, George Galloway, a former Labour MP and now leader of the Workers Party of Britain, is the bookies’ favourite to win the seat. 

He’s running on a pro-Palestine ticket, and wants to send a message to Britain’s main political parties over their complicity in the genocide.

Declassified visited Rochdale yesterday to see what’s happening, with voters going to the polls tomorrow.

Galloway is running his campaign from a car garage. (Photo: John McEvoy / Declassified UK)
Galloway is running his campaign from a car garage. (Photo: John McEvoy / Declassified UK)

Referendum on Gaza?

Galloway’s campaign, which is being run from a Suzuki car dealership on the outskirts of Rochdale, has been unapologetically focussed on Gaza.

“If this election had been in 1940”, he tells Declassified, “would people really be asking me why I was highlighting the ongoing Holocaust against Jews and others in Germany and German-occupied Europe?”

Outside the Suzuki dealership, Galloway’s name is superimposed onto Palestinian flags; inside, there are stacks of campaign leaflets coloured with the same red, green, black, and white.

It’s just gone 10am when around a dozen of Galloway’s supporters rally for another day of canvassing. Most of them have travelled from outside of Rochdale – from Birmingham, Halifax, even as far as London.

This is clearly the most energetic campaign in Rochdale.

The Labour headquarters has its shutters down, and the phone number on the front of its office no longer works. Ali has supposedly fled the scene, and his social media account has been dormant since the scandal broke.

The Greens have also dropped their candidate over historic Islamophobic remarks, and the Conservative runner has reportedly been on holiday. 

That leaves the Liberal Democrats, Reform UK, and a number of independent candidates, all of whom stand only an outside chance of securing the seat.

Labour’s local office is shuttered. (Photo: John McEvoy / Declassified UK)
Labour’s local office is shuttered. (Photo: John McEvoy / Declassified UK)

‘It’s a moral issue’

At the Galloway campaign’s morning briefing, canvassers are told to focus not only on Gaza, but issues surrounding the NHS and the possible bankruptcy of the local football team.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that Galloway’s supporters have been energised by his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now the genocide in Gaza.

“The people here believe genocide is taking place. It’s a moral issue. This should be enough of a reason to vote for someone. You should be able to vote with your conscience”, says one of them.

“Our politicians have turned a blind eye to mass murder and genocide”, says another.

Gaza is also being raised on the doorsteps in Rochdale, where roughly 20 percent of the electorate is Muslim. Galloway’s campaign is reportedly targeting those wards with a high Muslim population.

“Just one person’s voice in support of Gaza is enough”, declares one resident in the Spotland and Falinge ward when asked what impact Galloway could actually have in parliament. “It’s not religious. Any Christians, anybody being killed, I’ll vote for the person against this”, he adds.

Gaza is clearly not the only pressing issue in Rochdale – and nor is it, for many people in this neglected northern town, the main one.

Rochdale has one of the highest child poverty rates in the UK, and life expectancy is around two and a half years below the national average. 

Nonetheless, Galloway’s hyper-focus on Gaza appears to have shifted the political dial towards foreign policy issues – even for rival campaigns.

Iain Donaldson, the Liberal Democrat candidate, has been handing out leaflets with the banner: “Campaigning for a Fair Deal for Palestine”.

At the other end of the spectrum, Simon Danczuk, the former Labour MP for Rochdale and now the candidate for Reform UK, has adopted the slogan: “Rochdale not Gaza”.

Galoway is the bookie’s favourite. (Photo: John McEvoy / Declassified UK)

‘Paper tiger’

Various parts of the British left are cautious about Galloway’s campaign.

Some have noted that “Galloway has, over the years, adopted a populist strategy” which has “at times seen him share platforms or electoral tickets with far-right figures and organisations like Ukip”, while others have claimed that “no one really expects Galloway to set foot in Rochdale again if he loses”.

Galloway says he’s committed to Rochdale. “We’ve already lost the A&E, we’ve lost the maternity facilities – if you can’t be born in a town and can’t die in it either, and god forbid if it loses its soul in the football club, then to what extent is it a town any longer?”, he asks.

Whatever the case, Galloway’s campaign has already demonstrated that the genocide in Gaza is a battleground upon which Britain’s major political parties can be challenged – and punished.

Even before Labour’s implosion in Rochdale, the party was haemorrhaging votes over its consistent failure to call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.

“Labour is a paper tiger, it’s an unguarded fortress”, says Galloway. “When someone comes forward who has got a credible claim to be elected, they do get overrun”.

‘Wildfire’

Galloway’s campaign in Rochdale could also provide a boost to the growing number of independent candidates across Britain gearing up to challenge the mainstream parties on an anti-genocide ticket. 

“I think there is a feeling that if George wins here, that will be a huge encouragement to a lot of independents who are trying to run in other parts of the country”, says one of his campaigners.

As it stands, British Palestinian Leanne Mohamad is planning to run against Labour MP Wes Streeting in Ilford North, while Andrew Feinstein (a former colleague of Nelson Mandela) is rumoured to be challenging Starmer in Holborn and St. Pancras.

“We’re going to set a wildfire running here”, declares Galloway, still one of the most impressive orators in British politics.

If Galloway wins in Rochdale, he will be returning to parliament via a fourth constituency, a feat only surpassed by Winston Churchill.

What will be his first act upon return, since being voted out in 2015?

“I’ll go into PMQs on [the following] Wednesday, and my first words will be: ‘As I was saying, Mr Speaker’. And I’ll bombard the two frontbenches with my mandate I have to speak for Gaza”, he promises.

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