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Polling day in Rochdale: chaotic by-election draws to a close

polling station
By David Hopps
29 February 2024
local advocacy
local elections

Voters in the Greater Manchester town of Rochdale go to the polls today, marking an end to what has been one of the most chaotic by-election campaigns in recent times. The poll, which will choose a successor to the veteran Labour MP Tony Lloyd, who died in office earlier in the year, has been fraught with drama from the outset. The circumstances being so unique that, whatever the outcome, the result is unlikely to be a reflection of the current national political situation.

Sitting on the edge of the Pennines and in the north east corner of the sprawling Greater Manchester city region, the deprived mill town of Rochdale has a history of political controversy. Traditionally a marginal seat between Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, though more recently dominated by Labour, the by-election is the latest chapter for a town that was once represented by the alleged child sex offender MP Cyril Smith and has more recently been in and out of the news as a result of a significant child grooming scandal.

That said, this by-election was likely to have been a straightforward fight, that was until the campaign descended into disarray when the official Labour candidate, Azhar Ali, lost his party’s support after being recorded making a series of antisemitic remarks (though he will still appear on the ballot paper). Add in to this mix the appearance of serial by-election candidate and political opportunist, George Galloway, who is standing in opposition to Labour’s policy on the war in Gaza.

Galloway, who has declared the by-election as a “referendum on Gaza”, is the bookies’ favourite to win and is targeting the support of Rochdale’s Muslim community, which accounts for around 30% of the seat’s population. The former firebrand Labour MP has previously experienced notable electoral success, having won in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and Bradford West in 2012 under the Respect Party banner. He stands in this election as the Workers Party of Britain candidate.

It is rare for a foreign issue to play such a large part in a British election as it has in this campaign. Set against a national backdrop of a Prime Minister battling to keep his premiership on track and two recent crushing by-election defeats, the Conservatives are not mounting a serious challenge this time, nor are the Liberal Democrats.

Aside from a string of local independent candidates on the ballot paper, adding to the drama is Simon Danczuk, who is standing for the Reform Party. The controversial candidate who previously served as the town’s Labour MP, until being suspended by the party, is hoping to win the votes of those who want to put local and national issues at the forefront, such as the cost of living, crime and immigration.

Galloway’s presence and Ali’s suspension has put the Israel-Hamas conflict centre stage in this election, but with the other main parties sitting this one out (at least from a campaigning point of view), the result is unlikely to give an indication of the national political mood. This may come as a small relief to Rishi Sunak. As for Rochdale, despite the by-election circus coming to an end – and regardless of who may be victorious – don’t expect the political dramas in the town to conclude any time soon.