Panic caused by British parliamentary earthquake election result

Marc Wadsworth

Never before have I been driven around on a campaign trail for a mainstream-media-described far left parliamentary candidate by a former establishment British ambassador. But that was the case for a by-election in the North West English town of Rochdale on 2024’s leap year day that brought an historic victory for my long-time political ally the celebrity politician George Galloway (Interest declared: I've been a pundit on his various TV shows over the years). 

The unexpected spectacular win was so politically seismic it triggered British prime minister Rishi Sunak into making a hastily arranged statement the day after outside his Downing Street home in Westminster, London, to warn against what he called was "the rise in extremism" claiming it threatened British democracy.

He said Galloway's election to parliament was "beyond alarming" because it had returned a candidate who "dismisses the horror of what happen on 7 October [2023], when Israel was attacked by Hamas, and who "glorifies Hezbollah".

Pro-Gaza ceasefire Guardian columnist Owen Jones put Sunak's speech laced with threats to clampdown on Palestinian solidarity demonstrations in the context of "an unhinged moral panic whipped up against peace protesters".

Galloway swiftly hit-back at Sunak by telling Sky News deputy political editor Sam Coates, at his Suzuki car showroom Rochdale election HQ: "We've got the democratic mandate here, not Rishi Sunak, so don't put to me statements made by Rishi Sunak as if I'm meant to be impressed by them."

Asked about Sunak's comments on his views about the "Iran-backed Hezbollah" ruling resistance fighters in Lebanon, Galloway said: "I don't know what that means...I opposed Israel's occupation of Lebanon [which in 2000 Hezbollah  successfully militarily reversed]."

Asked whether he respected the prime minister, Galloway replied: "Do I respect the prime minister? I despise the prime minister. And guess what, millions and millions and millions of people in this country despise the prime minister."

Aaron Bastani, editor of the influential left-wing Novara Media website, said tellingly on X the former Twitter site: "Remember, ‘division’ is when you get more votes than all the main parties combined. ‘Unity’ is when you do whatever extremely wealthy and influential people in Greater London want."

He went on: "Rochdale isn’t even in the top 15-20 seats by Muslim population. Galloway just won more votes than Labour, the Tories, Lib Dems, Greens and Reform combined! I don’t think people realise what’s just happened."

I was surprised ex-diplomat Peter Ford, 76, who was the UK’s ambassador to Bahrain for four years until 2003 and Syria for three years after that, is a deputy leader of Galloway’s Workers Party of Great Britain (WPGB). His on the Road to Damacus-conversiion-criticism of western states’ policy in the Middle East and hostility to Nato has found a home in the party. He took me canvassing with two other volunteers, in the impoverished Greater Manchester former cotton mill town’s Spotland district on the River “spouting stream” Spodden. 

On the horizon we could see the dim outline of the famed Pennines hill range that separates Lancashire, where Rochdale is based, from Yorkshire, a city in which Galloway was last an MP.

Ford told The-Latest, using Galloway-style hyperbole: “George’s victory sends shockwaves around the world. It shows that when the voting public in a Western country are given a chance they will vote massively against a Western government’s Gaza policies. It also shows more widely a rejection of the legacy parties. The Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Labour and Conservative and have resonance in places like America where we have the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the Republican and Democrat parties.”

Proud Scotsman Galloway, 69, the former Labour and Respect MP received around 40 per cent of the vote, winning the bitterly fought seat with 12,335 votes, giving him a 5,697 majority over nearest rival David Tully, a car repair workshop-owning local businessman who stood as an independent to notch up his seventh election to parliament.

It marked Galloway's House of Commons return after a nearly decade-long absence. He previously served in it on and off for 27 years, last representing the seat of Bradford West, which has a much larger Muslim population than Rochdale, in 2012 winning a byelection on an anti-Iraq war platform. Galloway lost it to Muslim Labour candidate Naz Shah at the general election three years later.

Standing for his newly-formed Respect party for the first time in 2005, Galloway defeated pro-Iraq war sitting Labour MP Oona King in East London's Bethnal Green and Bow seat, representing the constituency until a Bengali Labour candidate, Rushanara Ali, won it at the next general election in 2010, when he unsuccessfully contested neighbouring Popular and Limehouse instead. Ambitious Ali, a Muslim Labour frontbencher, has been heavily criticised for following her party leadership's line and abstaining on a Gaza ceasefire vote.

Three years ago, Galloway stood for the just-founded WPGB in the West Yorkshire Batley and Spen by-election, finishing third with a respectable 8,264 votes, almost 22 per cent of the total cast. It proved to be a vital training ground for his now battle-hardened election team.

The Rochdale seat became vacant in January with the death of its popular Labour former foreign office minister MP Tony Lloyd, who had a majority of almost 10,000 over his Conservative rival. At that election the Liberal Democrat candidate was third. 

Those main party results were completely upended in the by-election by extraordinary circumstances. Labour’s right-wing, sell-out some would say in the Asian community, candidate Azhar Ali self-destructed by making  conspiracy-theory-secretly-recorded comments, given to the Mail on Sunday, that Israel’s leadership knew beforehand about the deadly October 7 2023 Hamas attack on their country but ignored warnings so they could use it as pretext to destroy Gaza. 

He was disowned by an at first hesitant to jettison him party leadership. But it was too late for them to replace him with another candidate and be removed from the ballot paper. Though still billed as the official Labour candidate, Ali came a miserable fourth, polling just 238 votes more than the Lib Dem in the contest. Labour’s vote collapsed from more than 50% to less than eight percent, with party leader Keir Starmer’s lockstep with Sunak and US President Joe Biden's support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza a major driver.

Galloway had campaigned heavily on the plight of the Palestinians, courting the Muslims who make up about 30 per cent of the electorate in Rochdale. He dedicated his victory to Gaza, but also campaigned on local issues in Rochdale, such as the declining state of the town centre and its lack of a maternity ward at its hospital. 

He also used social media to make pledges to the Rochdale electorate. He told his huge more than 700,000 followers on X, formerly known as Twitter, he had already resurrected the town's indoor market after meeting with the owners of the site.

Galloway also expressed his opposition to cuts at Rochdale Infirmary on X, writing "Not if I'm elected!!!" in reference to an Manchester Evening News article from 2010. Speaking to the paper, Galloway promised to restore maternity services in Rochdale - claiming he came up with the idea before Labour's by-election candidate did - and revealed that he is already in talks about bringing a Primark store to the town.

His election material handed out to voters was in the red, black, white and green colours of the Palestinian flag. There were huge posters with Galloway’s picture on them with the same colours all over Rochdale, much more than those of other candidates, such was the huge success of his three-year-old party's 100-volunteers strong campaign.

But supporter Usman Nawaz, 34, a health worker member of the broad-based Rochdale Community Alliance, told The-Latest: "Clearly the Muslim vote turned out for George Galloway but enough white working class people voted for him as well to give him his win. There weren't just 12,000 Muslim voters. In some Muslim areas the turnout was quite low anyway, so it was a bit of a mixture in terms of support." 

In his victory speech, Galloway said, with characteristic bluntness: "Keir Starmer [the Labour leader] - this is for Gaza. And you will pay a high price, in enabling, encouraging and covering for, the catastrophe presently going on in occupied Palestine in the Gaza strip.”

He added: "This is going to spark a movement, a landslide, a shifting of the tectonic plates in scores of parliamentary constituencies. Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak are two cheeks of the same backside and they both got well and truly spanked tonight.”

Some white working-class people The-Latest spoke with, including female bar staff and some men playing darts in Spotland’s Black Dog pub, said they didn’t vote for Galloway. because they resented him "parachuting into the town from outside". Yet Galloway points out  he is "deeply connected" to Greater Manchester where two of his sons live and his daughter was born.The pub critics also talked dismissively of Galloway's mocked 2006 appearance on the Big Brother reality show where he dressed up as a cat.

Other critics didn’t seem to have any specific reason why they didn’t like Galloway, giving the impression the mainstream media’s hate campaign onslaught against him had adversely impacted on them.

There were misgivings among some supporters (see X post on the left) about Galloway's use of the Union Jack flag's red, white and blue in the shape of a cog on the WPGB logo that combines a nod to British patriotism and the notion of an industrial working class (he's a prominent Brexiteer). The colours are favoured by the far right, including the fascist British National Party. Galloway's election flyers also described him as a "straight choice" (between Lablour and the WPGB). But, knowing him, he'd dismiss such concerns as the "woke" murmurings of the "identity politics" brigade. 

While Gaza has been the catalyst for the Galloway breakthrough and will undoubtedly be a central rallying cry, the party is seeking to build a  genuinely socialist identity at odds with the purported  leftwing former party leader Jeremy Corbyn-era metropolitan elite that failed so miserably to capture Labour for the working class it was set up to represent.

Ford described Galloway as a big draw for the party but a "marmite" personality that people, supporters and opponents, have strong opinions about (see the X post by peacenik barrister Jane Heybroek, who has almost 44,000 followers).

Until he next has to fight the seat in the general election later this year, Galloway can bask in the glory of this being his latest parliamentary win in four cities in five constituencies (Glasgow Hillhead, Glasgow Kelvin, Bethnal Green and Bow, Bradford West and Rochdale) for three parties (Labour, Respect and the WPGB) across four decades. Ironically, the amount of parties for which he's been elected MP is a record equalled only by British war hero Winston Churchill.

Galloway has vowed he will field many candidates at that crunch general election most commentators believe Labour will win. On X he said the number for parliament has already reached 79 and nearly 300 for town halls - a likely Labour victory not because the party or its lying, lacklustre leader Starmer are particularly appealing but because of the awfulness of the corrupt, racist, Islamophobic, anti-migrant and anti-working-class Tory government. Some of the WPGB hopefuls will almost certainly stand in London and previously Labour-held so-called "red wall" North of England seats, including Rochdale. The party says it will also support people standing as independents who are socialist and pro-Palestinian in council and parliamentary elections.

Ford told The-Latest the WPGB had raised more than £20,000 through crowd funding, and it was a big enough war chest for the party to fight an election in at least another seat. He said it had 3,000 signed up members.

Critics say Galloway’s win will raise concerns at Westminster, the seat of British government, that his "divisive" brand of politics could further fuel political tensions that have seen pro-Palestine demonstrators stage protests outside the constituency offices and homes of ceasefire vote abstaining Labour MPs, leading to taxpayer-funded additional security for some of them.

Galloway’s win now gives him a platform in Parliament from which to attack the Labour Party he loathes as much as the Conservatives for their stance on Israel's slaughtering of Palestinians in Gaza. It reminds me of a hero MP of mine, Mumbai-born communist Shapurji Saklatvala, about whom I've written a biography. He was known in the hostile British parliament as "the MP for India" to which he was elected in 1922. Charismatic and a gifted orator, like Galloway, he was a lone, brave vloice for an oppressed country occupied by a colonial power, much like his rightful successor is now the MP for Palestine.

Galloway was expelled by Labour in 2003 for his outspoken opposition to the British-backed US invasion of Iraq and became a big critic of prime minister Tony Blair who he dubbed a war criminal.

In the Sky News interview, Galloway said ominously: “I’m not like [Jeremy] Corbyn. I won’t turn the other cheek. If you slap me, I’ll slap you back.”

Follow me on X (formerly Twitter): @marcwads

* Photography in Rochdale by Rosetta Fourlagawo and Marc Wadsworth