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Rochdale by-election: Chaotic contest overshadowed by antisemitism row and Gaza war leaves voters frustrated

Once a Labour safe-seat, Rochdale is facing a chaotic byelection this week where the party isn’t represented at all, writes Zoe Grunewald

Tuesday 27 February 2024 13:42 GMT
Rochdale residents have shared their frustration as they go to the polls
Rochdale residents have shared their frustration as they go to the polls (Getty Images)

There can be few by-elections in recent memory that have been more chaotic than Rochdale.

Triggered by the death of Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd - who had held the constituency since 2017 - voters will go to the polls on Thursday after weeks of the Greater Manchester town hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Multiple candidates have been disowned by their party with allegations of both antisemitism and islamophobia.

Labour were forced to withdraw support from their candidate, Azhar Ali, after he repeated a conspiracy theory that Israel had allowed Hamas’s 7 October attacks to take place to provide grounds to invade Gaza. Mr Ali remains on the ballot, but not in the party, meaning Labour will have no candidate in the contest at all.

Divisions over Labour’s position on the Israel-Hamas conflict has eroded support amongst the Muslim community, which comprises nearly 30 per cent of Rochdale’s population.

Azhar Ali has been suspended from the Labour party following comments he made about Israel (PA)

The Greens have also faced difficulties. The party was forced to disown their candidate, Guy Otten, after tweets referencing Palestine and Islam resurfaced. Mr Otten is now also campaigning as an independent.

The Conservative candidate Paul Ellison based his campaign on local issues such as town regeneration and littering while Liberal Democrat candidate, Iain Donaldson, focused on the NHS and the cost of living. But neither were mentioned by voters The Independent spoke to when we visited the town the week before the vote, in an election overshadowed by events thousands of miles away.

George Galloway, the candidate for the Worker’s Party of Britain, has positioned himself as a pro-Palestinian voice and is now the bookies favourite to win the by-election. Mr Galloway, both a former Labour party and Respect Party MP, could cinch his fourth parliamentary seat since 1987.

George Galloway is the bookies favourite to win Rochdale (PA)

But for many voters, the focus on a war that has nothing to do with Rochdale only takes focus away from local issues that sorely need addressing, from the state of the roads to anti-social behaviour and the demise of local health services.

Many of the grand double-fronted buildings and handsome red-brick terraces in the town are now worn out and disused, with ‘for rent’ signs littering their windows. Locals lament that the once thriving textile hub in the North-west of England has been left behind.

One of the most deprived boroughs in the UK, Rochdale is also the site to several headline-grabbing scandals, including an almost decade-long child exploitation ring, the death of two-year old Awaab Ishak from mould exposure and the home to Gordon Brown’s infamous “bigoted woman” remarks.

Despite the pressing needs of the local population and the election just a week away, there is little sign of the prospective candidates. That is except for Mr Galloway.

Local residents blame the Labour-owned council for the town’s demise over recent decades (Independent)

His party’s campaign machine is anchored in an old Suzuki garage, not far from the train station. Inside, a handful of volunteers sit behind large piles of flyers that read “For Rochdale. For Gaza” above Mr Galloway’s name.

Mr Maxted, one of the national organisers for the party, insisted that Gaza isn’t the sole focus of Galloway’s campaign and said the party is also focused on “getting the police to do its jobs” in response to the Rochdale grooming scandal, as well as building a new maternity ward in the area.

But it is hard to ignore the Palestinian colours on Mr Galloway’s signs or his heavy emphasis on the conflict on his social media feed. Keir Starmer’s approach to the conflict is the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, Mr Maxted says.

“They’ve essentially managed to ostracise this entire community and other Muslim communities up and down the country”, he said. “Supporting what they see as a genocide is just the final straw”.

After some negotiation, the party agreed to let us accompany volunteers on the campaign trail.

The first door was answered by a woman who scolded the party for its use of the Palestinian flag on Mr Galloway’s campaign leaflet. “It’s offensive”, she said. The by-election “should be about Rochdale”.

Shortly after, we were told to leave.

Mr Galloway has based much of his campaign on around Israel/Palestine (Independent)

Voters in the town centre were either angry or despondent, pointing to their declining living standards and the state of local services.

Christine, 72, said she was fed up with the council: unhappy that social housing had been given to others when she had worked hard all her life and unhappy that her pension is less than those who have never worked.

Another woman – a single mother in her 30s – expressed her disappointment with the Labour-run council and the accessibility of mental health services: “I've got a daughter who's got serious mental health issues and there's literally nothing in place.

“It’s a Labour-run council, and it’s a Labour-run MP and we’ve never got anywhere,” she added. “We’ve still got grooming scandals and everything. So it’s just not for me.”

Both said they would probably vote for David Tulley – a Rochdalian man campaigning as an independent candidate for local improvements, such as reinstating a local maternity ward and the long-term security of Rochdale football club.

“I think of anybody it should be somebody that’s been born and bred here, that knows everything”, Christine said.

Many residents say they are undecided about who they will vote for in the upcoming by-election (Independent)

Reform party candidate, Simon Danczuk, says Rochdale wants an MP who cares about the local area. A fellow Lancastrian, Mr Danczuk was the Labour MP for Rochdale between 2010 and 2017, before being suspended from the party. He has since joined the right-wing challenger party.

Mr Danczuk’s campaign rests on two pillars: drawing on his time as MP, where he “challenged the council to do better” during the Rochdale grooming scandal. Second, tackling illegal immigration.

“There’s no doubt about it that Rochdale has been let down,” he told the Independent. The town has taken a “disproportionate number of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants over the years.

“The by-election offers an opportunity for Rochdalians to send a clear message to central government and the Prime Minister... we want change.”

Reform candidate Simon Danczuk says immigration is an important issue for Rochdale (PA)

Milkstone Road, a fifteen minute walk from the town centre, is a street abundant with small businesses, chicken shops, takeaways, supermarkets, clothing stores. Shop window after shop window is populated with posters of Mr Galloway’s grinning face.

Here, the atmosphere is different. Despondency is replaced with something resembling hope, as locals loudly voice their support for Mr Galloway.

Muhammed, 73, the owner of a travel agency, says he is voting for Galloway out of protest for the Labour council.

“Since the Labour Party has taken over Rochdale council they have ruined Rochdale,” Muhammed said. “Rochdale was one of the nice cities to live in the UK. After Labour has taken council control since 90s, they have ruined the area.”

Some voters say George Galloway will ‘stick up’ for Rochdale (Independent)

Walking down Milkstone Road the Independent passes two men, shrouded in Palestinian flags, collecting donations from passing cars. Many shop fronts have Free Palestine slogans in their windows.

Across Rochdale, voters express concern for the conflict in the Middle East, but none say that Gaza has defined their vote. When it comes to the by-elections, it is clear that the town is the priority and locals want an MP who will advocate for Rochdale.

Sharif, a retiree in his 70s, captured the mood: “The Palestinians are suffering, they’re paying the price for the terrorists.

“It has to be sorted out. But it shouldn’t really affect my voting. My voting is just for all the day-to-day things that need to be improved.”

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