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Could Rochdale Muslims enraged by the war in Gaza sweep Putin-loving firebrand George Galloway back into the House of Commons?


The colours of Palestine are proudly on display at George Galloway’s campaign headquarters next to a former Suzuki car showroom in Rochdale. The flyers bearing his face on the railings outside? Black, white and green. The giant poster next to them? Black, white and green. The leaflets stacked on trestle tables inside? Black, white and green. The badge on Galloway’s lapel? Black, white and green.

Sometimes you have to remind yourself that you are still in Rochdale, an old mill town in the foothills of the Pennines, north of Manchester. Galloway, now 69 and one of the most controversial political firebrands of recent times — who has lately been busy retweeting admiring posts of Vladimir Putin — is on the stump here for the forthcoming by-election, in his signature black fedora and Ray-Ban spectacles, megaphone in hand. ‘For Rochdale, For Gaza‘ is his slogan.

‘Gaza is the main issue facing at least 40,000 people,’ he tells me unapologetically when I meet him one evening this week back in his ‘bunker’ on the outskirts of the town centre, where he is plotting to return to parliament for the fourth time — only Winston Churchill is ahead of him, having represented five constituencies —on a budget of just £15,000.

But what about the other 180,000-odd people outside the Muslim community in Rochdale who may not feel the same way, George?

George Galloway (pictured) one of the most controversial political firebrands of recent times is on the stump in Rochdale for the forthcoming by-election, in his signature black fedora and Ray-Ban spectacles, megaphone in hand. ‘For Rochdale, For Gaza’ is his slogan

George Galloway (pictured) one of the most controversial political firebrands of recent times is on the stump in Rochdale for the forthcoming by-election, in his signature black fedora and Ray-Ban spectacles, megaphone in hand. ‘For Rochdale, For Gaza’ is his slogan

‘Gaza is the main issue facing at least 40,000 people,’ he tells me unapologetically when I meet him one evening this week back in his ‘bunker’ on the outskirts of the town centre, where he is plotting to return to parliament for the fourth time

‘Gaza is the main issue facing at least 40,000 people,’ he tells me unapologetically when I meet him one evening this week back in his ‘bunker’ on the outskirts of the town centre, where he is plotting to return to parliament for the fourth time

‘We have lots of other things we are planning to do,’ he retorts.

His manifesto, he says, includes reinstating local maternity services, opening more youth clubs, providing more support for business and promising to clean the town hall clock.

And with another anti-Semitic scandal embroiling the Labour Party, the bookies have now made the pugnacious Scot — who, as someone once said, could start an argument in a phone box — the narrow favourite to win the seat.

The bigger picture is that Sir Keir Starmer’s response to the controversy has triggered a serious crisis in his leadership, notwithstanding the thumping double by-election victory in Kingswood and Wellingborough yesterday.

His decision not to immediately suspend Labour’s by-election candidate Azhar Ali angered many British Jews. Ali had said that Israel ‘had deliberately allowed’ Hamas’s October 7 massacre of its own people as a pretext to invade Gaza before swiftly apologising for the comment.

But casting him adrift more than 24 hours later, after the Mail exclusively accessed an audio tape of Ali’s comments at a Labour branch meeting at which he’d also ‘blamed people in the media from certain Jewish quarters’ for fuelling criticism of a pro-Palestinian MP, culminated in a backlash from others in the ranks already furious over the party’s stance on Gaza.

This is the Catch 22 facing Sir Keir: trying to solve one problem — to retain the confidence of British Jews — has led to another: losing the support of Muslim voters across the country. Not just Muslim voters either. Around two dozen Labour councillors across north Lancashire alone have resigned over Gaza.

It is a circle the Labour leader is unlikely to square in the foreseeable future, not in Rochdale, at least. Surely there can’t have been a by-election campaign in history where the Middle East crisis has played such a central role. ‘The people of Gaza don’t have a vote in this election — you do,’ screams one of Galloway’s pamphlets.

He says he is determined to ‘teach Labour a lesson’ for supporting a sustainable, and not an immediate, ceasefire. Many Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, are opposed to the policy for understandable and legitimate reasons.

The truth, though, is that an equally large number of Muslims in Rochdale probably hold much stronger views, like the suspended and disgraced Ali, the leader of the Labour group on the county council, incidentally, who is continuing to stand as an independent.

Sir Keir Starmer's decision not to immediately suspend Labour’s by-election candidate Azhar Ali (pictured) angered many British Jews

Sir Keir Starmer’s decision not to immediately suspend Labour’s by-election candidate Azhar Ali (pictured) angered many British Jews

He says he is determined to ‘teach Labour a lesson’ for supporting a sustainable, and not an immediate, ceasefire. Many Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, are opposed to the policy for understandable and legitimate reasons. Pictured: George Galloway

He says he is determined to ‘teach Labour a lesson’ for supporting a sustainable, and not an immediate, ceasefire. Many Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, are opposed to the policy for understandable and legitimate reasons. Pictured: George Galloway

As one British Pakistani Muslim told me, Israel did not even ‘have the right to self-defence’ in the wake of October 7 when more than 1,200 were killed and over 240 kidnapped in an unprovoked attacked by Hamas terrorists on Israeli territories because, he says, Israel is founded on an ‘an illegal occupation’ of original Palestinian land.

He said the attack was just propaganda anyway and he didn’t believe Hamas were guilty of raping women or butchering babies.

Shocking stuff, but he was not alone, which is worrying in itself, regardless of the wider damage anti-Semitism might inflict on Labour. What does this all mean for Rochdale?

Much will depend, according to leading polling expert Professor John Curtice, on whether Galloway’s Workers Party Of Britain (effectively him) can attract enough non-Muslim supporters in Rochdale who are unhappy about the scenes from Gaza unfolding, according to Galloway, ‘nightly on our television screens’.

The vacuum was created following the death of Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd last month, who won a 9,668 majority with 24,475 votes in 2017 — a 51.6 per cent share.

Galloway, himself a former Labour MP before being expelled for attacking Tony Blair over the Iraq war (he’d called the leadership ‘a blood-splattered, lying, crooked group of criminals’) is the bete noire of Labour.

He has already taken two seats from them, with his Respect Party: Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012, both of which had large Muslim populations. Such a result in Rochdale on February 29 — or something close to it — could put many more Labour seats with a similar demographic in jeopardy.

Should Galloway’s Workers Party decide to field more candidates at the General Election they could, it has been suggested by some commentators, ‘be to Labour what Reform is to the Tories’. Either way, the anti-Semitic controversy has done little to enhance the already tarnished reputation of Rochdale.

The grooming scandal, where fear of accusations of racism enabled Asian male gangs to sexually traffic and rape vulnerable teenage girls with impunity, is still fresh in the memory.

There was another national outcry in 2020, when two-year-old Awaab Ishak died from a respiratory condition caused by mould in his family’s rented flat, after the housing association had been repeatedly asked, and failed, to deal with it. Rochdale is also one of the country’s most deprived towns with high rates of unemployment and child poverty.

The districts being targeted by Galloway and his small team of volunteers have been written on pieces of paper and stuck to tables at his campaign base: Bamford and Norden, Balderstone and Kirkholt, Milkstone and Deeplish to name but a few.

More than 75 per cent of residents who live in Milkstone and Deeplish are Muslims. One of the main streets is Milkstone Road, a long winding artery of businesses, shops and terraces.

It’s hard to miss the Palestinian flag outside one house with a Free Palestine flyer in the window. Akeel Afzal comes to the door. He is a British Pakistani Muslim. His wife Leanne is white British. They have four young children.

‘I voted Labour, my father voted Labour, my mother, my uncle. In fact everyone I have ever known has been Labour,’ said Mr Afzal, 48, who runs an Asian street food charity which raised £38,000 for the people of Gaza.

Would he be doing so again? ‘No, never, never,’ he replied. No secret why: Labour’s position on Gaza.

Much will depend, according to leading polling expert Professor John Curtice, on whether Galloway’s Workers Party Of Britain (effectively him) can attract enough non-Muslim supporters in Rochdale who are unhappy about the scenes from Gaza unfolding

Much will depend, according to leading polling expert Professor John Curtice, on whether Galloway’s Workers Party Of Britain (effectively him) can attract enough non-Muslim supporters in Rochdale who are unhappy about the scenes from Gaza unfolding

The districts being targeted by Galloway and his small team of volunteers have been written on pieces of paper and stuck to tables at his campaign base: Bamford and Norden, Balderstone and Kirkholt, Milkstone and Deeplish to name but a few. Pictured: A view of Rochdale

The districts being targeted by Galloway and his small team of volunteers have been written on pieces of paper and stuck to tables at his campaign base: Bamford and Norden, Balderstone and Kirkholt, Milkstone and Deeplish to name but a few. Pictured: A view of Rochdale

At this point, the interview turned into an unexpected diatribe. ‘If it was white babies [being slaughtered] it would be a different story,’ he said with increasing anger. ‘It’s disgusting. I have nothing against Jewish people. I have worked with Jews all my life. But injustice is injustice.’

Wasn’t it possible to have sympathy for both sides? ‘No,’ Mr Afzal said, because, aside from anything else, Israel had no right to defend itself against Hamas because it had no right to exist. Needless to say, he agreed wholeheartedly with Azhar Ali who claimed that ‘they [the Israeli government] deliberately took the security off, they allowed . . . that massacre, that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want’.

Mr Afzal would, nonetheless, be voting for George Galloway, not Ali, who has remained on the ballot paper as an independent because it was too late to register another Labour candidate for the Rochdale poll.

‘I don’t know if he will win but he will give the others a kick up the a***,’ Mr Afzal said.

Mustafa Ghulam, the man behind the counter at Auto-Shop, further down the street, resigned from the Labour Party over Gaza and would also be ‘going for George’ and so was the young man he was serving. It was the same story at NA Sweet Shop And General Store (Galloway) and the Chunky Chicken (Galloway) and Ahmed Fruit Stores (Galloway), where the owner Rizwan Ahmed, 44, said: ‘All the shops round here have Galloway posters up. He has been to the street so he has a lot of support.’

His reason, however, is very different to Mr Afzal’s. ‘I have voted Labour since 1998,’ he added. ‘But when I heard about what the candidate had said I thought ‘how could he do that?’

Near Rochdale’s Riverside Market, newsagent and life-long Labour voter Karamaad Hussain, whose family are from Pakistan, is also switching to Galloway. ‘What they are doing in Gaza is worse than Hitler,’ he said. ‘It’s just innocent people being killed, not terrorists. Everyone I know wants to vote for George Galloway.’

Overall, 18.8 per cent of the population in Rochdale is Muslim, according to the 2021 census, a significant number but not as big as, say, Bradford West, which Galloway won in 2013.

So to win he will have to pick up votes, as Professor Curtice pointed out earlier, in wards such as Balderstone and Norden district (72.5 per cent white British) or Labour voters will have to stay at home.

Indeed, Marianne Phee, 70, who has voted Labour in every election since she was 18, believes many Labour voters will do just that.

But she will not be one of them. ‘I am still going to vote ‘Labour’ [ie Azhar Ali, who is standing as an independent following his suspension],’ she said over a cup of tea in her local cafe.

‘I know my vote will be wasted but I couldn’t vote for anyone else. I wouldn’t vote for George Galloway if I had a hole in my head. So I think a lot of Labour voters will stay at home.’

Which is good news for Mr Galloway. Azhar Ali is not the only embarrassment to Labour which was also forced to suspend Graham Jones, a parliamentary candidate for Hyndburn, for referring to f****** Israel.

Before him, there was former shadow cabinet minister Andy McDonald who was filmed using the slogan ‘from the river to the sea’, which some say advocates the eradication of Israel.

Then there was Rebecca Long-Bailey, sacked as shadow education secretary, for publicly approving an interview in which it was claimed the Israeli state taught American police to kneel on a person’s neck.

Overall, 18.8 per cent of the population in Rochdale is Muslim, according to the 2021 census, a significant number but not as big as, say, Bradford West, which Galloway won in 2013

Overall, 18.8 per cent of the population in Rochdale is Muslim, according to the 2021 census, a significant number but not as big as, say, Bradford West, which Galloway won in 2013

So to win he will have to pick up votes, as Professor Curtice pointed out earlier, in wards such as Balderstone and Norden district (72.5 per cent white British) or Labour voters will have to stay at home. Pictured: Sir Keir Starmer

So to win he will have to pick up votes, as Professor Curtice pointed out earlier, in wards such as Balderstone and Norden district (72.5 per cent white British) or Labour voters will have to stay at home. Pictured: Sir Keir Starmer 

‘I do not think the Labour party has got it together enough to lead us,’ said former soldier David Smith, 76, who was sitting on the same table as Mrs Phee in the cafe.

Not surprisingly, many still believe that anti-Semitism has become normalised in the party.

The fact that British Jews suffered an ‘explosion of hatred’ in the wake of the Hamas terror attack, according to the Community Security Trust charity, will do little to alter that belief.

Back at the ‘nerve centre’ of the Workers Party Of Britain, the headline on the front page of the local paper, the Rochdale News, reads: ‘Support grows for Galloway.’

The Rochdale News, it turns out, is ‘paid for and delivered’ by none other than George Galloway’s Workers Party Of Britain. Even so, you wouldn’t bet against him.

Additional reporting: Mark Branagan and Tim Stewart 



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