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‘Macho’ all-male Rochdale by-election fuels political divisions over Gaza

In the weeks since a parliamentary by-election was triggered in Rochdale, the campaign to win the northern English mill town has become one of the most divisive in modern British political history.

The all-male list from which voters will choose on Thursday features two candidates abandoned by their respective parties, Labour and the Greens, because of comments about Israel and Palestine, one sacked previously by Labour for sending sexually explicit photos to a teenager, and the firebrand George Galloway.

For some locals, the offer is neither inspiring nor representative of the constituency.

“It feels like a big cock fight at the moment — ‘mine’s bigger than yours’,” said Sara Rowbotham, the former health worker who blew the whistle on Rochdale’s infamous child sexual exploitation scandal more than a decade ago. 

A campaign dominated by “macho” and divisive rhetoric was overlooking the “serious poverty” blighting parts of the community, added Rowbotham, who will stand down as a Labour councillor at UK local elections in May. “None of it bears any relation to what the town actually needs.”  

The by-election campaign blew up into controversy within days of the vote being declared following the death of sitting MP Tony Lloyd.

Labour was criticised for initially backing its candidate Azhar Ali after leaked comments, in which he said Israel had allowed Hamas to attack on October 7, sparked an antisemitism dispute.

The party, which held the seat at the 2019 general election with a majority of 9,668, dropped Ali after more remarks emerged. But he will still appear on the ballot paper for Labour because nominations had closed by the time it reversed course.

Ali initially apologised, although according to subsequent online campaign material he was “sacked” by Labour for “speaking on Palestine”. Ali did not respond to a request for comment.

George Galloway is campaigning strongly on the issue of Palestine © Lorne Campbell/Guzelian
The by-election was called after the death of sitting MP Tony Lloyd © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Bookmakers’ favourite Galloway has meanwhile vocally targeted Muslim voters, walking the streets of Asian neighbourhoods declaring his support for Palestinians over a megaphone. 

Standing at a bus stop in Littleborough, a relatively wealthy village on the edge of the constituency, retired health worker Lynne Stanton said she was not surprised Gaza had become such a dominant topic in the campaign.

“I think that’s the Asian population,” she said of the seat, in which about 30 per cent of voters are Muslim. “I’m not being a racist, I’m being realistic.”

Stanton had yet to decide which candidate to back, adding that she might go along to listen to Galloway, whom she called “quite a character”. Nevertheless the campaign had, she said, ended up being “divisive”. 

On Yorkshire Street, central Rochdale’s main shopping thoroughfare, one 56-year-old who asked not to be named said the prominence of Galloway and Gaza in the campaign did not reflect the town’s main concerns.

“There’s a lot of derelict places that need renovating,” she said. “The centre of Rochdale is all charity shops, takeaways, they’re all naff.” She planned to vote for Paul Ellison, the Conservative candidate, or for independent David Tully, who is prioritising help for local businesses.

Deprived estates in the centre of Rochdale, she added, were full of “people who are desperate”.

While the constituency, which had an electorate of 78,909 in 2019, includes more affluent areas, large pockets of central Rochdale are home to some of the worst deprivation in Britain. 

Poor housing has also reared its head. The death of toddler Awaab Ishak in 2020 from a severe respiratory condition caused by exposure to mould in his home, which was owned by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, sparked a national outcry when it was reported two years ago.

More than half of children in several of Rochdale’s central neighbourhoods live in households in relative poverty, defined as having an income below 60 per cent of the UK median, according to the House of Commons Library. 

Galloway has made one of these neighbourhoods the temporary base for his campaign. Once an MP in Glasgow, London and Bradford, the 69-year-old Workers party of Britain candidate has twice beaten Labour, focusing efforts on areas with large Muslim populations.

Rochdale town centre © Adam Vaughan/EPA/Shutterstock
Parts of Rochdale are home to some of the worst deprivation in Britain © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In 2019 Galloway was sacked by radio station Talk Radio for alleged “antisemitic views”, an allegation he has strongly denied. 

Speaking outside his campaign headquarters last week, Galloway denied running a divisive campaign. “The people who are divided are Labour,” he said, calling himself “one of the most famous parliamentarians in the land”. 

“The people who are in disgrace are Labour, the people who have got Rochdale trending again for a bad reason are Labour. So no, it doesn’t wash, it doesn’t play,” he added.

Asked if he knew that Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right British National party, had endorsed him on social media, Galloway said he was unaware and that such backing was “unwelcome”.

Mohammed Aquib, 29, working at a garage opposite, said he would be backing Galloway because “he’s supporting Palestine and he’s independent”. Normally a Labour voter, Aquib said he would return to Sir Keir Starmer’s party — which won two seats from the Tories in by-elections this month — “if they stand up for Gaza”. 

As well as the Israel-Hamas war, the spectre of child abuse hangs over the by-election. A recent report into the failures of public services to address on-street grooming gangs originally uncovered more than 10 years ago has put the scandal back under the spotlight, helping shape the platforms of candidates including former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, now standing for Nigel Farage’s Reform party. 

A campaigner on child grooming, Danczuk had the Labour whip withdrawn in 2015 after he was found to have sent explicit images to a teenager.

Tempers flared in public last week after Danczuk was not invited to a hustings event where Galloway and the contest’s Liberal Democrat candidate spoke. Farage said on X it was a “disgraceful” sign that “democracy is failing”.  

For Rowbotham, candidates’ references to grooming in their campaigns constituted a “power trip”, rather than an attempt to ensure the safety of women and girls.

One of the by-election’s big weaknesses, she said, was the all-male candidate list. “There’s too many women who don’t want to go anywhere near politics. And certainly not anywhere near Rochdale politics.”

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