UK

Voters in Rochdale say they have ‘tuned out’ of local politics

Labour’s by-election candidate Azhar Ali was dropped by the party on Monday, after apologising for remarks he made about Israel.

A sign for a polling station in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, ahead of the by-election February 29
Rochdale by-election A sign for a polling station in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, ahead of the by-election February 29 (Danny Lawson/PA)

Voters in Rochdale have “tuned out” of local politics as a by-election mired in controversy approaches, local people said.

But one candidate claimed he has taken to wearing a stab vest, saying such are tensions in the town as campaigning continues for the poll on February 29.

Labour’s candidate Azhar Ali was dropped by the party on Monday, after apologising for remarks he made about Israel, deemed a “conspiracy theory”, became public.

Mr Ali has since gone to ground, less than a week after his campaign launch when Labour were hot favourites to retain the seat following the sudden death of sitting MP Sir Tony Lloyd.

A man walks past Labour’s campaign centre in Rochdale, Greater Manchester
Rochdale by-election A man walks past Labour’s campaign centre in Rochdale, Greater Manchester (Danny Lawson/PA)

The parliamentary seat of “Good old Tony” as one local voter described the late MP, is now to be contested by no official Labour candidate.

But election law means Mr Ali will still appear on the ballot for Labour, along with two other former Labour MPs, political firebrand George Galloway of the Workers Party of Britain, and ex-Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk, of the Reform Party.

A roll of the eyes or shrug of the shoulders is a common response from locals asked about the by-election, some not even aware the poll is taking place later this month in one of the most deprived towns in England.

Michael Mills, a retired delivery driver helping the flower stall on Yorkshire Street, the main shopping strip in the town, described the latest political developments in his home town as “pathetic”.

Azhar Ali as he launched his campaign for the up-coming Rochdale by-election a week ago
Rochdale by-election Azhar Ali as he launched his campaign for the up-coming Rochdale by-election a week ago (Peter Byrne/PA)

He said: “The trouble with Rochdale is, it’s always been either Liberal or Labour.

“Now Labour is guaranteed that Labour always win, because of the Muslim vote.

“The amount of bloody poverty in Rochdale, but the politicians are so far up their own backsides.

“It’s making people angry and frustrated.”

Some shops on Yorkshire Street have buckets inside on counters wrapped in the flag of Palestine or in Palestine flag colours. Some shop windows have ‘Free Palestine’ stickers on them.

Another man, who did not want to be named, said: “I think people are blase about it. They think ‘politics again’ and have stopped paying attention to it all.

“It’s a circus. They have tuned out of it all. Nothing changes so who do you vote for?”

Joyce Matthew, a retired care worker, said: “They’ve ruined Rochdale, Labour, ruined it, what’s happened over the last 30 years.

“I will vote for an independent or spoil my ballot. There’s none I can vote for.”

One independent who is standing is Billy Howarth, who runs a local group, Parents Against Grooming and is well known in the area.

He says he wants to hold officials in Greater Manchester Police and Rochdale Council to account over the failings regarding grooming gangs in the town.

Mr Howarth said: “This election isn’t about Palestine, it’s about Rochdale. They have turned it into all about Palestine. Someone needs to stand up for Rochdale.

“Rochdale has massive issues. The guy (Galloway) thinks if he’s got all the Muslim votes, it’s in the bag.

“It has created such a division in the town. It’s not something we have seen since the 1970s.

“If you walk about and you are white, you are a Zionist. I sympathise with the Palestinians, but this is Rochdale.

“I’ve told my team they can’t go out in certain areas. I wear a stab vest.

“The feeling is nothing has happened yet, but something is going to happen.

“It is genuinely scary.”

George Galloway’s campaign HQ is at a Suzuki car dealership outside the town centre, given over by the garage owner and now scattered with boxes of campaign materials ready to be put through letter boxes.

Mr Galloway is not there but his campaign manager James Giles, an independent councillor in Kingston, London, insists the Galloway campaign is more than Gaza – though all the literature prominently includes the green, white and red of the Palestinian flag.

A woman walks past a sign for a polling station location in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, ahead of the by-election
Rochdale by-election A woman walks past a sign for a polling station location in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, ahead of the by-election (Danny Lawson/PA)

Mr Giles said Rochdale has 30,000 Muslims and 15,000 votes are enough to deliver a victory at most by-elections and his campaign has garnered hundreds of volunteers.

Mr Giles said: “The issue of Palestine or Gaza is not just a Muslim issue. Emotions are heightened in certain communities in the constituency. Gaza comes up in Deeplish on most doors.

“In other parts people are appalled about the state of the roads, the NHS, poor services.

“In some parts of the constituency it is criminal grooming gangs. It’s Labour here who control the police force and run the council.”

Voters go to the polls on February 29.