UK

Q&A: What does George Galloway’s Rochdale by-election victory mean?

The controversial politician triumphed in what commentators have called a ‘unique’ contest.

Mr Galloway gave his party another bloody nose in the Rochdale by-election – but does his victory have wider implications for Labour’s prospects?
George Galloway Mr Galloway gave his party another bloody nose in the Rochdale by-election – but does his victory have wider implications for Labour’s prospects? (James Speakman/PA)

Political maverick George Galloway swept to victory in the Rochdale by-election, winning almost 40% of the vote in a contest mired in controversy and dominated by the Gaza conflict.

Labour said Mr Galloway “only won because Labour did not stand” after it disowned its candidate Azhar Ali for suggesting Israel was complicit in Hamas’ October 7 attacks.

Mr Galloway, a former Labour MP who now leads the Workers Party of Britain, gave a flavour of the pressure he plans to pile on Labour in his victory speech, telling Sir Keir Starmer he “will pay, a high price for the role that you have played in enabling, encouraging and covering for the catastrophe” in Gaza.

He also declared a “shifting of the tectonic plates” away from Sir Keir’s party.

Here, the PA news agency examines how significant his triumph in the greater Manchester contest really is.

George Galloway is a divisive figure known for his fiery rhetoric
Rochdale by-election George Galloway is a divisive figure known for his fiery rhetoric (James Speakman/PA)

– Who is George Galloway?

A veteran political agitator, Mr Galloway has enjoyed support from some left-wing groups for his staunch support of Palestinian causes, but been accused of stoking division and using sexist, homophobic and antisemitic language by his opponents.

First being elected as a Labour MP in 1987 and expelled from the party in 2003 over his outspoken opposition to the Iraq war, he has since been a thorn in his old party’s side.

He made remarkable comebacks as a Respect Party MP, unseating Labour in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and in Bradford West in 2012.

Never straying far from controversy, he was ridiculed for his impersonation of a cat on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006.

Palestine has been a major theme of his political career and formed the cornerstone of his campaign in Rochdale, which also featured personal attacks on Labour leader Sir Keir.

– What happened in Rochdale?

Mr Galloway managed to capitalise on the strength of feeling on the Gaza war among the seat’s many Muslim voters.

The 69-year-old Scot became the firm favourite for the contest when Labour’s campaign was thrown into disarray by a leaked recording of Mr Ali’s inflammatory remarks about Israel, which led to the party withdrawing its support for him.

Labour withdrew support for its candidate Azhar Ali after he made inflammatory remarks about Israel
Rochdale by-election Labour withdrew support for its candidate Azhar Ali after he made inflammatory remarks about Israel (Peter Byrne/PA)

After a chaotic and divisive campaign, Mr Galloway ended up storming to victory.

His majority of 5,697 votes amounted to 18.3% of the total, on a turnout of 39.7%.

Surprise runner-up David Tully, a political newcomer, secured more than 6,600 votes, followed by Conservative Paul Ellison with 3,731.

Mr Ali, who remained listed as the Labour candidate as the party’s decision to drop him came too late for ballot papers to be changed, netted only 2,402 votes, followed by the Lib Dem and Reform candidates.

– What does this mean for Labour?

The result was embarrassing for the Labour Party, which had been expected to win the by-election triggered by the death of veteran Labour MP Tony Lloyd, before the fiasco surrounding Mr Ali.

Pollster Sir John Curtice described the collapse of the Labour vote by over 40% as “the biggest drop in Labour support in a post-war by election”.

Sir Keir’s party on Friday apologised to the people of Rochdale for not fielding a candidate.

It said Mr Galloway “only won because Labour did not stand” and that it was now focused on selecting a new Labour candidate for the general election.

But the debacle surrounding the dumping of its candidate in a previously safe seat and Mr Galloway’s ultimate win will be deeply uncomfortable for Labour, with questions around the speed of its selection process.

– But does this mean Labour is in trouble at the general election?

Probably not. Even though Mr Galloway declared his triumph marked a “shifting of the tectonic plates” away from Sir Keir’s party, commentators believe it is unlikely Workers Party of Britain candidates will remove other Labour MPs at a national vote.

Polling guru Sir John noted Rochdale was a “unique contest contested by a candidate with a unique ability to appeal to the Muslim population in a town that also has a past record of voting on local issues”.

Savanta pollster Chris Hopkins said: “I don’t think Keir Starmer will be losing any sleep over this result…

“Of course, if George Galloway can all of a sudden manufacture 20-30 clones to stand in the seats with the highest Muslim populations, and generate adequate resources to run a general election campaign, then maybe he can pose Labour a serious threat.

“But realistically, Galloway is a bit of a maverick, a one-off, and has taken huge advantage of a non-campaign from the established parties in Rochdale.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has faced divisions within his ranks over his position on Gaza
Starmer Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has faced divisions within his ranks over his position on Gaza (Dan Kitwood/PA)

– Does this spell trouble for Labour over its stance on Gaza?

The campaign highlighted divisions within Sir Keir’s party on the Middle East conflict, which Mr Galloway sought to capitalise on by calling it “a referendum on Gaza” and using it to stage a protest against his former party.

He is set to use his return to Parliament to continue piling pressure on the Labour leadership.

Left-wing pressure group Momentum said Sir Keir’s “failure to stand with Gaza in its hour of need left the door open for George Galloway” and that he should “stand up for an immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza”.

But Labour’s deputy national campaign co-ordinator Ellie Reeves suggested Labour would not change its position on the Israel-Hamas war – calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” with some caveats – in the wake of Rochdale.

Labour has warned Mr Galloway will stoke “fear and division,” which comes against a backdrop of already heightened tensions that have led Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to argue that the UK is descending into “mob rule”.

– What are the wider political implications of Rochdale?

Looking at other parties, Mr Sunak’s Tories performed poorly, with polling expert Sir John telling BBC Breakfast: “The Conservative vote down by 19 points – it’s the biggest drop in the Conservative vote in a Labour-held seat in a by-election in this parliament.

“There is no sign here of the electoral gloom that hangs over the Conservative Party is in any way dissipated by Sir Keir Starmer’s difficulties.”

The Conservatives may at least be relived that Reform did badly too, following relatively strong showings in last month’s Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections that gave the Tories the jitters.

(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics/Press Association Images)

The Reform candidate, former Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk, who was barred from standing for Labour in 2017 after he admitted sending “inappropriate” messages to a 17-year-old girl, secured a little more than 6% of the vote.

More widely, commentators have suggested that there are no significant lessons to be drawn from the result.

Keiran Pedley, director of politics at Ipsos, tweeted: “The reason it’s hard to find a read across for Galloway’s win in Rochdale to national politics is because there isn’t one.”

Savanta’s Mr Hopkins said the by-election result should be taken “with a truckload” of salt.

“The immediate ‘what does this result mean?’ questions are inevitable, but in my view the answer is: very little.

“This by-election was bizarre beyond recognition; of the established parties, Labour and the Greens effectively disowned their candidates, the Liberal Democrats had their own local campaign controversy, the Reform candidate was a disgraced former Labour MP, and the Conservative candidate took a holiday midway through the campaign.

“All of these factors have contributed, to some extent, to Galloway winning and an inexperienced independent coming second.”