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Eleven candidates are vying for votes in Rochdale
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News, in Rochdale

By-elections are often colourful and chaotic but there has never been anything quite like the contest taking place in Rochdale right now.

The vote next Thursday – caused by the death of the town’s widely respected Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd – should have been relatively straightforward for Sir Keir Starmer’s party, riding high on the back of a string of by-election victories around the country.

But the entry into the race of maverick former MP and left-wing firebrand George Galloway – and the spectacular implosion of Labour’s campaign – has thrown the contest wide open.

Mr Galloway is mainly targeting Rochdale’s Muslim population, who make up about 30% of the electorate, many of whom are angry about what is happening in Gaza.

“The people of Gaza don’t have a vote in this election, you do,” reads one of his campaign leaflets.

At a meeting at the town’s Kashmir Youth Project, he says that, if elected, he will “enter the chamber of the House of Commons like a tornado” and “shake the walls for Gaza”.

He claims a victory for him in Rochdale, a small town near Manchester, will be noticed “by the people in Gaza, by the people in Tel Aviv, but most importantly by the front benches in Parliament.”

Labour’s candidate Azhar Ali, who had backed an immediate ceasefire in Gaza before Keir Starmer’s calls this week for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire”, was disowned by the party when a recording of him making allegedly antisemitic comments emerged, for which he apologised.

Labour members in the town were ordered to stop campaigning for him – and the shutters came down on the party’s campaign headquarters.

But Mr Ali is still officially Labour’s candidate – that’s how he will appear on the ballot paper this coming Thursday because it was legally too late to change. If he is elected, he will sit in the Commons as an independent MP.

But it was clear from speaking to voters in the rain-lashed town centre on Tuesday evening that some Labour supporters were either not aware of him being dropped by the party or did not care.

Paul Walsh, a 56-year-old roofer, said he knew all about the controversy but he was still going to vote Labour anyway.

Rumours had been swirling that Mr Ali’s supporters were still campaigning for him – although there was little evidence of this beyond some mocked up social media images depicting Keir Starmer as a clown.

On Thursday, Mr Ali broke cover to say that these images had nothing to do with him.

In a statement, he said that he had been “a Labour supporter for more than 30 years and has Labour values”. He added that he was campaigning and standing to be Rochdale’s MP and that Sir Tony was a friend and he “wants to continue his good work”.

Little wonder some voters seem confused about who to back.

Wendy Fleming, who recently moved to Rochdale from Ireland, half-jokingly suggests that the Monster Raving Loony Party candidate Ravin Rodent Subortna seems to be the only one talking sense.

“That actually hurts my soul,” she says. “Voting is something I really do take seriously, always have done, but this time it’s so difficult. It’s really just going to be the best of a bad bunch.”

Wendy Fleming says she is struggling to find any candidate worth bacling

Just about everyone you speak to is fed up with the bad press Rochdale has received in recent years.

The town, in the foothills of the Pennines, has a proud history – it was the birthplace of the Cooperative movement and 1930s film legend Gracie Fields.

But it has recently become associated with child sexual exploitation and grooming – something that is an issue at the ballot box, with William Howarth standing as the Parents Against Grooming UK candidate.

The town centre has had a makeover, with a new shopping centre, and its Grade II listed town hall has just benefited from a £20m restoration. But social deprivation’ , poor housing and crime are rife.

George Galloway is eager not to be seen as a single-issue campaigner and is promising to “make Rochdale great again”.

He is calling for the local hospital’s maternity ward to be re-opened – and has has even promised to help save the local football club, Rochdale AFC, which is facing bankruptcy after being relegated from the Football League.

Many young Muslim voters in the town have been energised by his campaign – both for its focus on Gaza and his promise to tackle the town’s social ills.

Area Shakeel, who is studying to be a mental health nurse and volunteers at a local soup kitchen, says: “He’s actually listened to our views and our opinions in a diverse community – you feel like you are being heard when you are speaking to him.”

Ms Shakeel believes George Galloway listens to the community

But the man who sees himself as Mr Galloway’s main rival, the town’s former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, accuses him of ignoring the majority of voters in the town, who, he says, are “white, working people”.

Mr Danczuk, who was suspended by the Labour Party in 2015 for sending explicit messages to a 17-year-old girl, something he now dismisses as “tabloid nonsense”, is standing for Reform UK.

He insists his “old Labour values” are perfectly in tune with Reform – normally seen as being to the right of the Tory Party.

He says he voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum but “only just” so has no problem with being the candidate for the former Brexit Party. He says his focus is “100% on Rochdale”, tackling crime and taking a hard line on immigration.

“What we have seen over time is places like Rochdale, a proud Lancashire town, its culture and ethos diluted by ridiculous amounts of asylum seekers being placed here,” he says.

Reform UK candidate Simon Danczuk is Rochdale’s former Labour MP
George Galloway is mainly targeting Rochdale’s Muslim population

Mr Danczuk says he and Mr Galloway, both former Labour MPs, have shared platforms in the past.

But those days are long gone.

“He’s a chancer, a grifter,” says Mr Danczuk, who highlights the former Respect MP’s record of standing for election – in some cases with great success – in areas with large Muslim populations.

“He’s gone from Bradford to Tower Hamlets, now he’s showing up in Rochdale. He should take his daft hat, his fat cigars and his extremist policies back to wherever he comes from.”

Mr Galloway initially says he won’t dignify this with a response, but can’t resist a jibe of his own.

“Being called a chancer by Simon Danczuk – it’s a bit like being told to stand up straight by the Hunchback of Notre Dame,” he says.

After being expelled from Labour in 2003 over his stance on the Iraq war, he has defeated Labour in Bethnal Green, in east London, for the anti-war Respect Party and – in one of the biggest by-election upsets of recent times – in Bradford West, in 2012.

He says he wants to use Rochdale as a launchpad for his Workers Party of Britain, which is trying to recruit 50 candidates to send a message to Keir Starmer at the general election.

Andrew Johnson, a 62-year-old housing campaigner, says he is worried about “sectarianism” if Galloway is elected and is voting Reform because it “would be inappropriate, I think, to vote someone who is more concerned about things that are going on thousands of miles away than streets away”.

Andrew Johnson plans to vote for Reform UK

But Samur Mushtaq, a local restaurant owner and community campaigner, says he has been alarmed by the “inflammatory rhetoric” from the Danczuk campaign.

“Personally, I just want a local MP who is going to represent the community well,” he says, adding that he is “veering towards the Liberal Democrats”.

Rochdale was a Lib Dem stronghold not so long ago and the party’s candidate Iain Donaldson believes it can be again.

He backs a ceasefire in Gaza and an eventual “two-state solution” in the Middle East but is focusing his campaign on tackling “child poverty and poor quality housing” in Rochdale, among other local issues.

The Conservatives also have a strong following in the constituency, particularly in the more affluent suburbs and villages. They came second at the 2019 general election, with 14,000 votes.

The Tory candidate, Paul Ellison, who runs a landscaping firm, is also campaigning on “bread and butter” issues like crime and local businesses. He was on holiday when we were in Rochdale, but James Daly, MP for nearby Bury North, insisted the party was “fighting for every vote”.

Roy Smethurst, out walking his dog Sunny in the pouring rain in Littleborough, a village just outside Rochdale, says he will be voting Conservative.

“I used to be proud to be a Rochdalian,” he says, adding: “It’s just not the same town I was brought up in or it doesn’t seem to be to me.”

He is no fan of George Galloway and his focus on Gaza.

“We are not going to influence what happens in the Middle East. It’s just not going to happen.”

Roy Smethurst plans to vote for the Conservatives

Another twist, in an already tortuous by-election comes courtesy of the Green Party, which disowned its candidate Guy Otten over old social media posts about the Muslim faith and the conflict in Gaza.

The Greens are now campaigning for independent candidate Mark Coleman, a retired vicar and Just Stop Oil activist who has previously been jailed for non-violent direct action.

Mr Coleman says his message is going over well with voters but cheerfully admits that he faces a court appearance in London just before polling day over his latest conviction.

He says he hopes to avoid a jail sentence this time, after pleading guilty, so he can make it back to Rochdale for the count on Thursday.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

One thing that appears to unite everyone in Rochdale is a sense that the town has been neglected and let down by politicians.

Among the 11 candidates standing in the by-election are two local businessmen, David Tully and Michael Howarth. Neither have any political experience but both say they feel compelled to make a stand.

Aqub Nazir, who runs youth project Aspire2Inspire, says the rise of independent candidates – and the number of people getting involved in community projects across the town – is a positive sign that people are willing to work for change.

“There is a massive demand now for someone locally to stand up who is actually going to care for Rochdale as a community,” he says.

“I don’t like to say it, but it’s one of the most deprived areas in the whole of the United Kingdom so who is actually going to be doing work on the ground in Rochdale?”

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