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Westminster Is Nervously Braced For George Galloway's Return To The Commons

George Galloway will represent the far-left Workers Party of Britain in parliament. (Alamy)

7 min read

George Galloway's unexpectedly strong victory in the Rochdale by-election for the far-left Workers Party of Britain has triggered concerns that his divisive brand of politics could inflame tensions over Gaza, both inside and outside Westminster.

Galloway, a former MP for Labour and the Respect parties, and one-time Celebrity Big Brother contestant, overturned Labour's near 10,000 majority in the seat on Thursday with a majority of 5,697. Running a campaign which included the slogan "For Rochdale, For Gaza", the Workers Party of Britain candidate made foreign policy a cornerstone of his offering, and used his victory speech to direct criticism at Labour leader Keir Starmer's record on Gaza.  

Labour's originally selected candidate for the by-election, councillor Azhar Ali, was abandoned by the party early on in campaigning after a leaked recording revealed him claiming MP Andy McDonald had the Labour whip removed due to "people in the media from certain Jewish quarters". Too late in the process for Ali to be removed from the ballot paper as Labour's candidate, he was left to fight the by-election as an independent.

"Keir Starmer: 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," Galloway said in a victory speech in the early hours of Friday morning. Since Israel's bombardment in Gaza began in October, after Hamas killed more than 1,200 Israelis in a terror attack, Labour has faced criticism for being hesitant to explicitly demand a ceasefire, instead calling for a "humanitarian pause". Last month the party altered its position to call for a "humanitarian ceasefire".

Galloway and community tensions 

Galloway predicted his victory in Rochdale would "spark a movement, a landslide, a shifting of the tectonic plates" across England and told town councillors they were "on notice". His party has already indicated that at the next general election it intends to run candidates in several constituencies in Birmingham, which like Rochdale, have sizable Muslim populations. It is expected that the topic of Gaza will continue to be a cornerstone of their campaigning.  

Galloway's elevation to the green benches in Westminster has sparked concern that tensions could mount further on the already combustible debate around Gaza, both among MPs in the Commons, and out on the campaign trail. 

Danny Stone, chief executive of the Antisemitism Policy Trust, told PoliticsHome he believes Galloway has a "record of impacting negatively on both the public discourse and community relations" which are already "damaged" by the impact of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. 

In February, the Community Support Trust (CST) reported antisemitic hate crimes had increased 589 per cent compared to the same period in 2022. Muslim charity Tell Mama reported a 335 per cent increase in anti-Muslim hate incidents since 7 October compared to the same period in 2022/2023. 

MPs have reported receiving death threats over their stance on Gaza. Mike Freer, Conservative MP for Golders Green and Finchley, which has a large Jewish community, has gone as far as deciding not stand again after his constituency office was fire bombed. 

George galloway
George Galloway made Palestine a key issue during his campaign, with the Palestinian flag appearing on campaigning material. (Alamy)

"In terms of the discourse, [Galloway's] already made it clear what his focus will be. It's going to be on the conflict," Stone said. "It's already a source of division and polarisation in parliament – his voice will only, if it's anything like last one, serve to exacerbate that." Last time Galloway sat in the House of Commons, as the Respect MP for Bradford West between 2012 and 2015, he was a vocal critic of the UK's record on the Iraq war.

Stone worried that Galloway's return to the public eye could have a negative impact "already damaged" on community relations over the issue of Gaza. 

"What is clear is that what we need is a more mature, more civilised, less toxic discourse, and everything that he's done in the past counts towards the opposite. That's my fear, that it will divide people."

In a statement on X on Friday, the Jewish Labour Movement said Galloway's victory was "bad for politics, Parliament and social cohesion" and pledged to campaign in Rochdale at the next general election, which must be called before the end of this year. 

One Labour MP told PoliticsHome they felt "less safe as a consequence of the election result" in Rochdale. "The last thing Parliament needs is an MP who lives for controversy and creating divisions," they said. 

A shadow minister felt that Galloway's "record of toxifying public discourse and inflaming community tensions" would be amplified by the "public platform" of elected office. "We can only hope he turns up as little as he did in the past, albeit the people of Rochdale will sadly suffer,” they told PoliticsHome

Concern about division was not confined to the opposition benches. Former home secretary and Conservative MP Sajid Javid, who comes from a Muslim background, described the result as a "vote for hateful, toxic and divisive politics". He wrote on X:"An awful by-election outcome for my home town of Rochdale and the country."

Former minister and Tory MP Tobias Ellwood told Sky News: "I read some of his literature - they are so full of hate. They are designed to rally fear, they are designed to cause division."

What does it mean for the general election?

Galloway said that his victory was in part because Labour had "lost the confidence of millions of their voters who loyally and traditionally voted for them, generation after generation", and believed that Starmer's challenge to regain that confidence was "100 times more serious" as a result of his election in Rochdale. 

One Labour MP told PoliticsHome this result “isn’t just about Gaza”, but also the fact that Rochdale has been left in a dire state. “

This is the culmination of sixty years of economic failure," they said. "If the ‘political class’, as Galloway and Farage love to call us, don’t grasp the nettle of fundamental change we’ll be seeing a lot more ‘shocks’ like this in the coming years.”

Azhar Ali
Azhar Ali was dropped as Labour candidate in the by-election for remarks he made about Jews. (Alamy)

But a former shadow minister felt the chaotic way in which the Rochdale campaign played out, causing it to be dominated by a single issue, had worked in Galloway's favour. "I said this would happen, I think it was inevitable," they told PoliticsHome. "He has a playbook which is hard to beat in the right circumstances. These were the right circumstances with bells on."

While Will Jennings, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Southampton University, believed Galloway's victory wasn't a "fluke" because he had been a "consistent disruptor of parliamentary by-elections over the years," he agreed that "exceptional" circumstances had still played a part.

"The result tells us little about the loyalty of the Labour vote, as the party had disavowed its candidate, so Galloway's claim that the party has lost confidence of its supporters is without basis," Jennings said. "I'd think it would be highly likely that Labour would win the seat back at the general election with a new candidate and an active campaign."

Adam Drummond, head of political research at Opinium, told PoliticsHome Galloway was "the best in the business" at exploiting "key bits of the Labour coalition" but also felt it was difficult to conclude this was a vote against Labour. 

"The size of Galloway's win potentially means it's a more complicated story than just 'Labour will just easily win it back in the general election' as the previous precedent in Bradford West had three years between by-election and general election so there's less time here for things to settle down," he explained. 

"One scenario is that it's a bit like 2005 where Labour sheds some votes in safe seats but is far enough ahead nationally that it doesn't really impact the marginals. But that's something that's more likely to affect a party in the state Labour was in in 2005 (eight years of 'cost of governing' and being only a few points ahead nationally) compared to the state they're in now."

Rob Ford, Politics Professor at the University of Manchester, said he was surprised by the scale of Galloway's victory, but warned that it should be a wake-up call for Labour to understand the volatility of voters after a decade characterised by multiple crises. 

“I think what this may be an example of is a broader problem for Labour, which is we have a very, very discontented electorate right now," he said. 

"A lot of voters think the status quo is crap, they’re not happy about it and they want to a change or to protest against the status quo.

“Labour's problem is they don’t necessarily have a monopoly on discontent in all circumstances. That’s what Galloway has shown."

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