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Labour Fears Extremists Will Target Rochdale By-Election

The Rochdale byelection is expected to be held in February. (Alamy)

7 min read

There are fears the by-election in the Labour safe seat of Rochdale could be heated, with the town's recent history with child sex exploitation and Labour's position on Gaza thrown into the spotlight.

It is expected to be held in February after Labour veteran Sir Tony Lloyd died in his post after 36 years as an MP last week. 

The competition for Labour's shortlist for Rochdale was tight, with a Labour source telling PoliticsHome there has been "dozens" of applications submitted in the selection process in the week following Lloyd's death. 

Three people have made the shortlist to replace the respected Labour stalwart: Paul Waugh, a lobby journalist with the i paper; Azhar Ali, leader of the Labour group at Lancashire county council; and Nazia Rehman, a Wigan councillor. The winner will be announced later today. 

Waugh, who grew up in Rochdale, is considered to be the Labour leadership's favoured candidate - writing in the i paper he believed it was time to "cease being a spectator and start being a player" after being approached by local Labour members to make a bid for the seat. 

PoliticsHome understands Labour MP for Weaver Vale and shadow homelessness minister, Mike Amesbury, is coordinating campaigning in the seat. 

The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Reform UK are among the other parties fielding candidates in the north west constituency. George Galloway's far-left Workers Party of Britain, which includes deputy leader and former MP Chris Williamson - who was blocked from standing as a Labour candidate in the 2019 General Election by the party's National Executive Committee  - has also indicated to PoliticsHome interest in running in the constituency. 

"The Workers Party national members council has approved funding for a by-election campaign in Rochdale," general secretary, Paul Cannon, told PoliticsHome. 

"Out of respect to the deceased, who was a well-regarded politician and friend of the workers, we will not make any announcement until proceedings are further advanced."

Labour's policy on Gaza will be tested

As the contest begins to shape up, there is concern in Labour that the by-election could be a test of some of the party's positions that have been controversial among some of its own MPs and members - most significantly Gaza. 

Over 25,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the latest war between Israel and Hamas began, after the terror group killed over 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped hundreds more. 

Multiple frontbenchers, including senior Labour MP Jess Phillips, resigned last year after rebelling against the party's official position which did not call for a ceasefire in Gaza. 

It has been an issue which has been particularly important for some minority groups in Labour, including the Labour Muslim Network, who have criticised leadership's position on the conflict - and is likely to become a key election priority in Rochdale due to the constituency's Muslim population. 

"Rochdale's always been Labour, it should be Labour - but because of the messaging around Gaza and supposedly a lot of the Muslim communities turning away from Labour, there's a real concern it will become a bit of a referendum on our position in Gaza - especially with by-elections being traditionally quite low turnouts," a Labour source told PoliticsHome. 

"If you can't get your core vote turnout - and a lot of that might be some of the 30 per cent of the constituency that's Muslim - and Galloway or others can, you get a real risk of as a someone slipping through."

They added: "I think we'll be okay, but I think it's got the ability to turn really nasty... it could be a lower than 10,000, but again: you have to factor in by-election turnouts."

A Labour MP told PoliticsHome they also believed it would be a test of the party's position on Gaza given the large Muslim population in the constituency, and widespread unhappiness among Muslim Labour members over the leadership's decision not to back a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. 

"It is a chance in an electoral context to see the sentiment of the Muslim community over Gaza," they said.

"We will see what the sentiment is, and whether the electorate recognise the differences in Labour and Conservative positions on Gaza."

In a sign of how important the war in Gaza is likely to be in the by-election, favourite Waugh has included his calls for a ceasefire in campaigning ahead of the selection on Saturday. 

"I'm a lifelong trade unionist, with 26 years of national experience and contacts at Westminster to help our town thrive," said Waugh in a text message to Labour members in Rochdale.

"In this by-election, we need a Rochdalian who can call for an immediate ceasefire on Gaza, handle the media spotlight, and unite the town."

And in nearby Stockport on Thursday night pro-Palestine protesters heckled deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner at a fundraiser over the party's decision not to call for a ceasefire.  Labour's official position is currently to support a "humanitarian truce" with a view to working towards a "sustainable ceasefire". 

It is also likely that Galloway's far-left Workers Party of Great Britain will make Labour's position on Gaza a key part of their campaigning, with their website's "ten point programme" containing criticism of Labour leader Keir Starmer's failure to call for a ceasefire. 

Risk of hate

As well as the issue of Gaza becoming a key issue in the by-election, the town's recent history of a child sex abuse ring garnered national attention after failings by local police and council bosses led to young girls being trafficked, prostituted, raped and assaulted by "grooming gangs" for years. 

The ethnicity and religion of the perpetrators, and failings by the police to prosecute them, has been used by the far-right to peddle racist and divisive narratives - leading to concern it could become a polarising topic in the by-election. 

PoliticsHome understands that Hope Not Hate, the anti-racism and anti-fascism advocacy group, is monitoring the situation amid fears it could be capitalised on by extremist groups. 

Georgie Laming, director of campaigns at the organisation, told PoliticsHome: "The far right cause divisions in communities wherever they run in elections, even if they aren't successful.

"As they leaflet and door knock to promote their racist platforms, they spread their hateful politics in towns and cities across the country.

"We've seen the far right use the scandal of child sexual exploitation to push misinformation and harmful narratives."

However, a source at Reform UK - who believe they could come second ahead of the Conservatives in the by-election - said it was a topic that they would not be shying away from. because it was a vital issue for local people.

"Everybody should be talking about it -  we shouldn't be leaving this topic to Britain First," they told PoliticsHome. 

"Everybody should be talking about it, and promising to do something about it... Labour should be banging on about it, the Tories should be banging on about it, the Lib Dems should be banging about it.

"Everybody should not leave this ground to the hard right."

One Labour MP told PoliticsHome they believed the by-election had the potential to become polarising in the way the Heywood and Middleton by-election had in 2014, which saw Labour narrowly beat UKIP by 617 votes.  

"It's hard to say, because obviously Rochdale is a by election from a death... compared to by-elections where someone's resigned, or they've gone to prison, or done something wrong," they said.

"It will effectively be pretty much paper candidates [from the main parties], and then in the space that opens up, sometimes that's where the more like extreme parties get involved."

Another Labour MP told PoliticsHome they believed the campaign could be similar to the polarising Batley and Spen by-election in 2021, which became incendiary after candidates were fielded by the far-left and the far-right, inflaming local community tensions and divisions. 

"There are definitely local issues and international issues - and so national issues will pay less of a role," the MP told PoliticsHome. 

"And so we might need to think about doing it differently to the other recent by-elections - and view it more like Batley and Spen, and view it more how we worked in Batley and Spen than it is like Mid Bedfordshire or Selby."

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