It is the arrival of George Galloway which Labor fears could cause the party the biggest headache in the Rochdale by-election at the end of the month.
But in the end it was Labor’s own candidate, Lancashire County Councilor Azhar Ali, who sabotaged what should have been a safe Labor seat (majority: 9,668) and made it a victory for Galloway a slightly more likely prospect on February 29.
Starmer disavowed Ali on Monday evening, 36 hours after the Mail on Sunday reported leaks in which Ali said the Israeli government had deliberately allowed 1,139 of its citizens to be massacred on October 7 in order to give it the “green light”. » for military action.
At first it looked like Ali might survive, with a leading Jewish Labor figure, the former Liverpool Riverside MP Louise Ellman, lured out of retirement to say he was an “ally” of the Jewish community.
Starmer stood by Ali throughout Monday until “further comments” made by Ali came to light and the party withdrew its support.
Thirty-six hours is a long time in politics for a leader who has rebuilt his party’s reputation by applying a zero-tolerance approach to anyone with even the slightest suspicion of anti-Semitism. There is no doubt that Starmer’s judgment will now be called into question, although he at least avoids constant questions about why Ali was allowed to stand between now and the February 29 vote.
So what happens next? Labor made it clear that even if Ali won, he would not be allowed to sit as a Labor MP. Instead, he would join other Labor pariahs, including Kate Osamor and Andy McDonald, in the independent group and undoubtedly disappear from Parliament after the general election.
But her name has already been printed on postal ballot papers, alongside Labour’s red rose and the party’s name. To make matters even more ridiculous, last week the Green Party candidate withdrew from the race in Rochdale after the re-emergence of what he described as his “regrettable” remarks on social media about Gaza and Muslims, and yet he too will be included on the ballot.
Thousands of people will likely vote for Ali, not out of personal loyalty – or adherence to the same conspiracy theory that suggested Israel was “involved” in the October 7 attacks – but because most people do not believe a lot of attention to political news. . If they vote, they often do so for a party and not for an individual.
During a two-day visit to Rochdale last week, the Guardian met as many voters who were unaware there was a by-election as those who had an opinion about the contest.
This is nothing against the people of Rochdale. Outside of Westminster, most people no longer listen closely to Radio 4’s Today program or buy a daily newspaper. With so much entertainment streaming, they’re not glued to the evening news.
So what about Galloway’s chances? He understandably smells blood, saying Labor have “once again brought shame to Rochdale as they have done so many other times before”. In a video Monday night, he promised to fight for “every vote, in every part of the community.”
But a Galloway victory is not a foregone conclusion. So far he has focused his campaign solely on Rochdale’s Muslim community, which makes up 30% of the local population. Although he is undoubtedly gaining support, at a rally outside a mosque on Friday his campaign team had to encourage the public to move closer to the front so that it would not appear so sparsely attended.
Meanwhile, Simon Danczuk, Labor MP for Rochdale between 2010 and 2017, believes he is now better placed to win back his old seat for his new party, the Reform Party. “It is now a fight between Galloway, who will prioritize Palestine, and me, who will prioritize Rochdale,” he said on Monday evening.
It is true that there are a significant number of voters in Rochdale for whom Gaza is not the main issue. Many remain disgusted by the city’s grooming scandal, and some were put off voting Labor when they realized a candidate of Pakistani Muslim heritage could be their new MP.
Ultimately, the vote will likely come down to turnout. The Labor machine is normally second to none on polling day when it comes to getting out the vote, deploying armies of door knockers until 10 p.m., cajoling people out of the house with offers of take them to the polling station.
Once this is over, could Galloway prevail? In the early hours of March 1, all will be revealed.