George Galloway

The return of George Galloway: what’s at stake in the Rochdale by-election?

Even before the Rochdale by-election result is declared in the early hours of 1 March, the contest is already set to live in political infamy. 

Triggered by the passing of veteran Labour MP, the widely respected Sir Tony Lloyd, the Rochdale by-election should have been a straightforward contest. It should have been the latest in a long line of by-election victories for Keir Starmer’s party — albeit without the added sweetener of turfing out a Conservative majority. 

Nonetheless, a strong Tory-to-Labour swing would have meant more welcome headlines for Labour as SW1 readies for a more totemic battle in the “Red Wall” seat of Blackpool South; (that is assuming incumbent MP Scott Benton is removed via recall petition).

But what has come to pass is, by any standards, shocking. Far from another Labour walkover, the two candidates that have dominated the Rochdale by-election’s coverage hail from parties with no representation in Westminster. 

Keir Starmer’s Rochdale debacle

Earlier this month, Labour pulled its support for its chosen candidate, Azhar Ali, after it emerged the Lancashire councillor had suggested in a private meeting soon after Hamas’ October 7 assault that Israel allowed the attacks as a pretext to invade Gaza. 

Ali’s apology and subsequent supportive statements from Labour’s top brass raised the prospect that the candidate could survive all the way up to polling day. But a hasty retreat from party spokespeople — reportedly upon the emergence of further remarks — saw shutters, literally, closed on its Rochdale campaign.

Worse still for the under-fire Starmer, Labour’s decision to withdraw its support for Ali came too late to parachute in a new candidate. By the time the Labour leadership declared its new position on the by-election, Ali’s name had already been printed on the postal ballots alongside his former party’s red rose. But while Ali retains some nominal linkage to Labour on the ballot paper, Starmer’s ruthless by-election winning machine has rolled out of town. 

And into the vacuum created by the Labour campaign’s chaotic implosion has, in the end, gushed more chaos and controversy.

These descriptors are personified, electorally at least, by the presence of George Galloway in the constituency. 26 years after having the whip suspended by former PM Tony Blair for “bringing the party into disrepute”, the leftwing firebrand simply will not retire quietly into the wilderness. 

In the Rochdale by-election, Galloway is standing for the Workers Party of Britain (WPB) — his latest upstart political project, having previously helmed now-defunct Respect Party and “All for Unity” tickets. But whatever colours Galloway sports, his mode of politics has barely changed since he first bested Labour at the 2005 election in Bethnal Green and Bow. And crucially, in the Rochdale constituency today, expectations now lean towards Galloway becoming its next MP.

With a low turnout expected, Rochdale’s large Muslim population (around 30 per cent) and the situation in Gaza providing a potent backdrop, today’s by-election would appear to be a perfect storm for the former Labour MP. Speaking in classic Gallowayite tones, contoured by his distinctive Scottish rasp, the WPB leader has claimed that a victory for him in Rochdale will be noticed “by the people in Gaza, by the people in Tel Aviv, but most importantly by the front benches in parliament”.

But Galloway insists that the conflict in Gaza is not the only issue he is campaigning on. Channelling another leader accused of demagoguery, Galloway has pledged to “make Rochdale great again” — citing specifically the closure of local maternity services, the NHS and his pledge to bring a Primark to the local shopping centre. 

The other former Labour man

In another shock twist, Galloway is battling in Rochdale with fellow political nonconformist and former Labour MP, Simon Danczuk. 

Danczuk, who now sports the light blue of Reform UK, represented Rochdale from 2010-2017 but was suspended from Labour over reports he sent explicit messages to a 17-year-old girl. Speaking after he was selected as the Reform candidate in his old constituency, Danczuk said the portrayal of him as a “sex shame MP” was “absolute nonsense, a tabloid creation”.

To take a broader view, Rochdale is the exact type of seat Reform must perform well in if it plans to live up to its national polling at a general election. The Brexit Party recorded 8.2 per cent of the vote in Rochdale in 2019 and, given Danczuk’s name recognition locally and Labour’s eleventh-hour withdrawal, a better showing should be on the cards this time around. 

Right now, it seems possible that Reform will outperform its recent by-election results in Wellingborough and Kingswood — showings which leader Richard Tice hailed as a “defining moment” for his party. For his part, Danczuk has said Rochdale is a two-horse race between Reform and Galloway. But coming second and trouncing the Tories would nonetheless be celebrated as a real coup for the Faragist party.

Danczuk and Galloway aside, Rochdale was represented by a Liberal Democrat in parliament from 2005-2010 — a fact which might bode well for the party’s by-election candidate, Iain Donaldson. But neither Donaldson nor the inconspicuous Conservative candidate, Paul Ellison, have been able to cut through the noise generated by Galloway and co. Perhaps tellingly, Ellison has reportedly been on holiday for some of the campaign.

It is also worth noting that the Green Party is not backing its candidate in the constituency. The party’s top brass withdrew its support from its candidate Guy Otten over comments he made on X/Twitter criticising Palestinians and Islam. Like Ali, his name will appear on the ballot paper. However, unlike Labour, the Greens are endorsing a candidate in the constituency by way of independent Mark Coleman, a retired vicar and Just Stop Oil activist who has previously been jailed for non-violent direct action.

What’s at stake in the Rochdale by-election?

Ultimately, the Rochdale by-election — characterised by grudge and division — will on Friday morning churn out one of the aforementioned candidates as the area’s new MP. 

In the end, with so much uncertain, a vote share of between 20-30 per cent could be enough to tip the by-election in favour of any given candidate. Still, after an acrimonious campaign and with turnout expected to be low (even by the standards of by-elections), any triumph will ring distinctly hollow. There is also no disguising the fact that whoever wins is likely to be an MP for little more than six months, with an election looming. 

If Ali defies the odds and wins, he will join the burgeoning ranks of independent, whip-less MPs on the green benches (taking the total to 20) — before Labour selects his successor for the upcoming election. (Some have speculated this could be former i journalist Paul Waugh, who lost out to Ali in this latest selection contest). 

But if the bookies are right and Galloway triumphs in Rochdale, it will be the first time his Workers Party of Britain has been represented in Westminster; a moment for the history books. Future pub quiz answers aside however, it will be what Galloway does once he takes to his feet in the commons that cuts through politically. 

Galloway announced his candidacy in Rochdale long before Labour’s selection debacle. Not to know, of course, that he was charging against an open door, he took to the streets of Rochdale planning to drive a wedge between Labour and the local Muslim community. 

In the commons, Galloway would no doubt strive to intensify such faultlines, taking this tried-and-tested strategy to a larger, national audience. Thus, after fomenting trouble for Labour in parliament (including alongside old ally Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps), Galloway might look to expand the WPB’s operation, or inaugurate some other more Gaza-centric project. With the Scottish National Party (SNP) evermore antagonistic in Scotland, the last thing Starmer needs is a new political party in England that could broaden his problems with regard to the situation in Gaza. 

In this way, a more significant question lies beyond the gates of Rochdale: what is George Galloway’s endgame? Whatever it is, Starmer could learn to fear it.

Josh Self is Editor of, follow him on Twitter here. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.