April 24, 2024

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Rochdale by-election: How worried is Keir Starmer after George Galloway's win?

Rochdale by-election: How worried is Keir Starmer after George Galloway's win?

  • Written by Ian Watson
  • Political correspondent, BBC News

The conflict in the Middle East has had a profound impact on UK politics.

Earlier this week, Rishi Sunak warned of “polarisation” in the debate.

On the other hand, the disowned Labor candidate in the Rochdale by-election, Azhar Ali. He made statements that were widely claimed to be anti-Semitic.

But does the drama of George Galloway's victory in Rochdale represent a real crisis for the main parties?

The winner claimed that he beat them.

Sure enough, the Conservative vote fell in Rochdale by 19 points.

But in election campaigns where the Middle East conflict has been a less prominent issue, it has also fallen significantly – by 21 points in the recent by-election in Kingswood, and by about 37 points in Wellingborough.

So what does the Rochdale result tell us about Labour?

I would be hesitant about making sweeping conclusions.

It is clear that the party made a mistake in choosing its candidate, and was initially reluctant to disavow him.

Sir Keir Starmer apologized to voters in the town earlier on Friday.

However, they disavowed Mr. Ali they did. The party closed its campaign headquarters and ordered its members not to knock on its doors.

Therefore, it is impossible to know whether Mr Galloway would have won a landslide victory – or any victory at all – if Labor had actually campaigned there.

So what has yet to be tested is whether pro-Palestinian voters will welcome this shift, or punish the party for the time it took to get there.

The Rochdale result certainly presents more than just a small local difficulty for Labour.

Some party MPs privately shared their thoughts on Galloway's win.

Overall, it was a depressing feeling.

And in some cases, fear.

There was a fear that it could foster further division within and between communities.

They felt that Galloway's victory – and his imminent return to Parliament – ​​had given him a platform and that his contribution to politics would be toxic.

It was not just the view of left-wing Labor MPs that the leadership's perceived slowness in changing its position on Gaza helped create a space in which Mr Galloway could flourish.

However, they all felt that the party's policy was now in the right place.

Video explanation,

Watch: Galloway gives Labour's by-election victory speech

It seems unlikely that Rochdale is a harbinger of wider electoral doom.

Labor easily won the by-elections in Kingswood and Wellingborough, which took place after a row broke out between the Rochdale candidates and before Labor called a “humanitarian ceasefire”.

These two areas do not have large numbers of Muslims, unlike Rochdale, where Muslims make up about 30% of the electorate.

But party insiders say in their focus groups that the phrase they hear most often is “time for a change.”

So Mr. Galloway – whoever he was, a gifted campaigner – was the change that brought about Rochdale.

He dedicated his victory to Gaza, but also campaigned on local and global issues in Rochdale – such as the deteriorating condition of the city center and its lack of a maternity ward.

So he may have expressed concerns that some voters felt had previously gone unheeded.

But in most parts of the country the change is still the Labor Party, which currently leads by a large margin in the polls.

There was some optimism among Labor MPs that the party could win Rochdale again in the general election.

She did so in Bradford in 2015 – after losing a by-election to Galloway in 2012.

In his victory speech, Galloway mentioned some other Labor seats that could be at risk.

Privately, while some Labor MPs felt that Galway's victory was unique, others felt that Labour's grip on a small handful of constituencies may be fragile.

In Tower Hamlets, east London, left-wing candidate Lutfur Rahman beat the Labor Party's candidate to become mayor in 2022, even before the conflict erupted in the Middle East.

The parliamentary constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow, which Mr Galloway himself held between 2005 and 2010, is in the town.

The newly elected MP for Rochdale has raised the prospect of Britain's Labor Party gaining 60 seats in the general election.

Some Labor MPs are more concerned about Green candidates capturing a potential majority.

Some of Jeremy Corbyn's ceasefire supporters are also discussing whether to contest a number of seats held by Labour.

Ilford North, held by shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, is seen as a particularly coveted prize.

While few in Labor circles believe that opposition from the left will have any serious impact on the outcome of the general election, some party MPs are likely to remain nervous as long as the conflict in Gaza continues.