‘The ultimate protest against Labour’: George Galloway’s bid to win Rochdale | George Galloway

“George Galloway all the way!” cried Ali Dar, the assistant manager of Rochdale Chunky Chicken. “He came here a few days ago, he went in all the shops, and every person, even on social media, is voting for him. I voted last time Labour, but this time: definitely George Galloway.”

Until now, he said, “the Asian community was supporting Labour unconditionally”. But not in the byelection on 29 February, because of Keir Starmer’s refusal to back an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

A Labour canvasser wearing a red rosette waited silently for his chunky chicken. The Guardian asked: “Are you not going to try to persuade him?” “Above my pay grade,” the canvasser answered. Quietly, he said he did not think Galloway would win. He’d been out all morning knocking on doors elsewhere in the constituency, where the demographics were different, and “Galloway didn’t come up at all”.

Ali Dar, at Chunky Chicken in central Rochdale, was backing George Galloway. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Chunky Chicken is in the ward of Milkstone and Deeplish, just outside Rochdale town centre, where 72% of people are Muslim, according to the 2021 census. Galloway, the former Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin (1987-97) and Respect party MP for Bethnal Green and Bow (2005-10) and Bradford West (2012-15), has been working the ward hard – when not hosting his YouTube talkshow or retweeting admiring posts about Vladimir Putin.

He walks the streets in his black fedora and Palestinian scarf, megaphone in hand, urging people to “lend” him their vote as “the ultimate protest” against Labour. They have “an opportunity sent by the almighty to be a voice of Gaza in the world”, he says.

Much of his campaigning happens online, with a team of enthusiastic young people spreading the message on social media. “It seems to be working,” said one well-connected Deeplish resident. “Every morning I open WhatsApp and more people have changed their profile pictures to ‘Vote Galloway.’”

Rochdale, Greater Manchester, has a byelection on 29 February after the recent death of its veteran Labour MP, Tony Lloyd. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Galloway has also attracted a few unwelcome fans, including Nick Griffin, the former leader of the far-right British National party, who tweeted: “The man’s not perfect, but he’s streets ahead of any other possible winner.”

Standing on a pile of wooden pallets outside the Bilal mosque on Friday, Galloway laid his message on thick: “How are you going to answer your children, your grandchildren, on judgment day when you are asked: ‘What did you do when Keir Starmer asked you to endorse what he has done?’”

He received only muted applause from the 50-strong crowd, who had to be coaxed towards the front so that it didn’t look like Galloway was talking to an empty cul-de-sac on TikTok.

Azhar Ali, the Labour candidate for Rochdale. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Labour is focusing resources elsewhere, after its candidate, the Lancashire county councillor Azhar Ali, was repeatedly abused by Deeplish locals. A video doing the rounds online shows him in a takeaway being called “Keir Starmer’s bum chum”, while diners shout “free Palestine”.

Ali, who worked as a Home Office adviser for five years after the 7/7 bombings, has supported an immediate ceasefire in Gaza as well as the release of hostages on both sides. But it doesn’t seem to make much difference to many Muslim voters.

He acknowledged “there is anger on the streets” and “some support has drained away”. But he insisted that “bread-and-butter issues” such as the NHS “trump the Gaza issue”.

Labour said Galloway’s campaign was ‘targeting just the Muslim community’ in Rochdale. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

On Sunday, Ali was forced to apologise after the Mail on Sunday reported remarks he made in the aftermath of the 7 October attacks in Israel, in which he said the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, deliberately allowed 1,400 of its citizens to be massacred in order to give it the “green light” for military action.

Pat McFadden, Labour’s election coordinator, said Ali was “wrong to say that, he should never have said it”. Asked by Sky News if Ali remained a Labour candidate, he said: “In the upcoming byelection? Yes he will.” However McFadden’s remarks prompted some speculation that Ali could be suspended by Labour if he is elected, and replaced in the general election later this year.

Galloway, said Ali, is “targeting just the Muslim community. He’s come in on his white horse trying to be the saviour, but all he’s doing is dividing the community.”

Galloway speaking outside Bilal mosque. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

He said he was “big and ugly enough” to engage with angry voters. “But what I’m not going to put up with is people being rude, disparaging and threatening abuse towards young women and men who go out campaigning for me.”

Across the whole constituency, Muslims make up 30% of the population. In contrast, Galloway’s last byelection win took place in Bradford West in 2012, where Muslims made up 51% of the constituency.

His last byelection loss was in 2021 in Batley and Spen, where 23% of the population were Muslim. To win in Rochdale, Galloway will have to overturn the 9,668 majority won in 2019 by Labour’s Tony Lloyd, who died from leukaemia last month.

Paul Hanson, a retired police officer, in Milkstone Road, central Rochdale. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Strolling down Milkstone Road this week, Paul Hanson, a retired police officer, questioned whether Rochdale’s “indigenous” people would vote for a Pakistani Muslim, particularly after the town’s grooming scandal, where mostly Pakistani men exploited vulnerable white girls.

“I have no problem with them – fantastic people, some of them, the ones that you get to know. But they have their beliefs and cultures and we have ours,” he said.

In Littleborough, a wealthy and largely white village on the other side of the constituency, no one seemed to know Galloway was standing. Ann Robbins, out doing her shopping, said she would stick with Labour. She said she was a fan of Starmer, describing him as “a trustworthy man. I think he will try to do what he says.”

Ben Kelsall, a bookseller in Littleborough, said he would vote for Labour. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

In George Kelsall Booksellers, Ben Kelsall said he too would vote Labour, describing Starmer as “more serious than the government at the minute”.

Simon Danczuk, Rochdale’s Labour MP from 2010 to 2017 who was suspended from the party after a series of scandals, is standing for Reform UK, the rightwing party co-founded by Nigel Farage.

He said Ali had repeatedly spoken about the “plight of the Palestinians” but “had not once bothered to speak upon behalf of the Asian grooming gang victims”. This, said Danczuk, illustrated Labour’s “woke” agenda: “Why would a Labour politician be more interested in the plight of the Palestinians than he is of poor white working class?”

Ann Robbins, in Littleborough, said she trusted Keir Starmer and would vote for Labour. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Ali said Danczuk was “living in cloud cuckoo land”. He said he chaired East Lancashire’s group against sexual exploitation and had “a strong record of calling out grooming, whichever community it’s in”.

In his speech outside Bilal mosque, Galloway said he would perform a citizen’s arrest on any groomer. He then listed various northern paedophiles who were not Muslim, including Rochdale’s former Liberal MP, Cyril Smith. “Jimmy Savile wasn’t a Muslim,” he added.

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