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The Labour leader says he will only put up “first class candidates” at the next general election

Sir Keir Starmer has apologised to voters in Rochdale for disowning Labour’s by-election candidate but insisted it was “the right decision”.

George Galloway stormed to victory in the contest, with Labour’s suspended candidate Azhar Ali a distant fourth.

Mr Galloway described the result as Sir Keir’s “worst nightmare”.

The Labour leader said Mr Galloway had only won because Labour had withdrawn support for Mr Ali over remarks widely alleged to be antisemitic.

Independent candidate David Tully – a local businessman – came a surprise second, beating the Conservatives into third place.

In his victory speech, Mr Galloway, leader of the Workers Party of Britain, described Sir Keir and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as “two cheeks of the same backside and they both got well and truly spanked tonight here in Rochdale”.

More on the Rochdale by-election

Mr Galloway has long campaigned on causes related to the Middle East, including for Palestinian rights and warned the Labour leader that his party would “pay a high price” for “enabling, encouraging and covering for the catastrophe” in Gaza.

Speaking after the defeat, Sir Keir said: “I regret we had to withdraw our candidate, and apologise to voters in Rochdale.

“I took that decision. It was the right decision.”

He promised that Labour would put forward “a first-class candidate, a unifier” to fight the seat at the general election, expected later this year.

Mr Sunak said the Rochdale contest had been “one of the most divisive campaigns that we have seen in recent times” but that the Tories had “run a really positive campaign”.

George Galloway has orange confetti thrown at him by Just Stop Oil campaigner Rev Mark Coleman, as he gives his victory speech in Rochdale

The by-election was triggered by the death of Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd, who had held the seat with a majority of nearly 10,000.

Labour had been expected to win, but their campaign was thrown into turmoil when remarks from their candidate Mr Ali, widely regarded as antisemitic, were published by the Daily Mail.

Mr Ali apologised for his remarks but the party decided to pull their support and ordered their members stop campaigning for him.

Veteran political pollster Sir John Curtice told the BBC the Rochdale result would intensify pressure on Sir Keir to toughen up Labour’s stance on Israel.

However, he doubted there would be much impact on the general election result, because it is “unlikely that anybody else has the ability to… exploit this issue [the war in Gaza] in the way that Mr Galloway is uniquely able to”.

Mr Tully, who got 6,638 votes, is well-known in Rochdale as he runs a garage business and is involved with the town’s rugby club.

He told BBC Radio 5 Live: “I feel I’ve turned the heads of people who don’t usually vote because nothing ever really changes with mainstream politics and parties.”

Reform UK has performed well in recent by-elections, coming third in both Wellingborough and Kingswood, but their candidate in Rochdale, the town’s former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, was beaten into sixth place with 1,968 votes.

The Campaign Against Antisemitism said it was “extremely concerned” by Mr Galloway’s victory, saying he had an “atrocious record of baiting the Jewish community”, including calling for Bradford, when he was an MP there, to be declared an “Israel-free zone”.

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