George Galloway's Rochdale victory: Is Gaza causing a shift in UK politics?

8 min read
04 March, 2024

George Galloway's victory in the Rochdale by-election on Thursday was far from trivial; it signals the wider pressure on the UK's major political parties, the Conservatives and Labour, over their reluctance to support a ceasefire in Gaza and their firm support for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel.

In his victory speech, Galloway took aim at Labour leader Keir Starmer, saying “Keir Starmer - this is for Gaza,” adding that “millions” are prepared to reject Labour at the upcoming election.

He later expressed his disdain for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose government has firmly stood behind Israel's war, providing diplomatic and military support.

On Friday, outside Number 10, Sunak's contentious speech called for expanded police powers to tackle "extremism" in Britain, echoing other ministers' efforts to stoke fears of a surge in "Islamist extremism".

"Galloway's victory in the Rochdale by-election signals the wider pressure on the UK's major political parties over their reluctance to support a ceasefire in Gaza and their firm support for Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel"

Many felt this approach aimed to discredit the massive pro-Palestine marches seen in London and across other British cities. Sunak also described Galloway’s electoral success as “beyond alarming,” highlighting Galloway's victory was a primary concern.

It’s quite a bad outcome for Labour. The removal of their own candidate, Azhar Ali, paved the way for Galloway to triumph at the ballot box, capitalising upon the concerns among many Labour voters over the death and destruction in Gaza.

Starmer's decision to unconditionally support Israel following Hamas’ attack in October, along with his assertion that Israel had the “right” to sever Gaza's water and electricity supply during its assault on Gaza – effectively condoning collective punishment - quickly alienated many traditional Labour supporters and a segment of its MPs who support a ceasefire.

Starmer has downplayed Galloway’s achievement and has promised to field a new candidate for Rochdale ahead of the general election later this year, hoping to regain that seat. He’ll certainly hope it’s a one-off victory and doesn’t trigger a precedent.

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Galloway's path to victory

Galloway’s compelling oratory and campaigning in Rochdale, which has a Muslim population of around 30 percent, played a big part in his win.

“The first thing one has to say about George Galloway is his remarkable ability to appeal to Muslim voters. That’s particularly driven by his distinct charisma and ability to engage with the Muslim community on such sensitive issues in the Middle East,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, in an interview with The New Arab.

“It’s also reflected in his past electoral success in Bethnal Green and Bradford West, where he was previously an MP.”

Galloway is certainly no conventional politician. He’s also among a generation of Labour MPs who embraced the Palestinian cause within a broader left-wing agenda following the 1967 Six-Day War and Israel’s subsequent occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

Notables from this era include Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone, and also Christopher Mayhew - who set up the Labour Middle East Council which lobbied for Arab causes.

Galloway's compelling oratory and campaigning in Rochdale, which has a Muslim population of around 30 percent, played a big part in his win. [Getty]

However, he is no stranger to controversy, especially because of his views on the Middle East.

In 1994, he met Saddam Hussein in defiance of political consensus at that time amid Western sanctions following the Gulf War. In that meeting, he told Saddam: “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability”.

His staunch criticism of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where he said Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George Bush behaved “like wolves” and urged soldiers to disobey orders, got him expelled from the Labour Party. 

He also met the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad in 2005. That, and his denial that Assad used chemical weapons in 2013, earned him the label of an “Assad apologist” during Syria’s war in which upwards of 400,000 have been killed. He’s also seen as taking a pro-Russian stance in Middle Eastern affairs, including in Syria, after his appearances on state-owned Russia Today (RT).

"While his victory was arguably expected, whether other politicians can emulate Galloway's success is questionable, given his own particular traits and abilities"

Yet whenever Western involvement in the Middle East is subject to scrutiny, Galloway has often channelled that critical energy to fuel his campaigns.

And in the case of Gaza, Galloway has aimed to harness the same dissatisfaction within Labour today that arose following Blair's participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq - a move that tarnished his reputation among many of Labour's core supporters.

“While his victory was arguably expected, whether other politicians can emulate Galloway’s success is questionable, given his own particular traits and abilities,” Dr Curtis added.

It’s true that Galloway’s victory won’t significantly derail Starmer’s electoral chances. But it may play a part in the wider pressure on Starmer and Sunak.

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Labour's balancing act amid rising pressure

As Gaza’s calamity deepens, with the death toll now over 30,000, Starmer has felt compelled to adjust his rhetoric, ostensibly shifting his position - in line with many Western politicians who initially backed Israel.

Like the Conservatives, Starmer has advocated for a "sustainable ceasefire" since December, which hinges on Hamas disarming and releasing Israeli hostages as preconditions, rather than Israel immediately ending its offensive.

He recently cautioned Israel over an offensive in southern Gaza's Rafah where 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering; although he didn't propose any repercussions should it proceed, such as halting UK arms sales.

Make no mistake, Starmer has largely kept criticisms of Israel in check. That’s evident in his recent rejection of the Scottish National Party's ceasefire motion that termed Israel's actions in Gaza as "collective punishment."

And although he called for a lasting ceasefire in February, his aides confirmed his position against an immediate halt to Israel’s onslaught hasn’t changed.

Starmer has also sought to purge overt criticisms of Israel from the party and maintain a coherent party line.

Starmer has continually failed to call for a ceasefire since Israel's war on Gaza began in October. [Getty]

For example, as the International Court of Justice, or ICJ, began hearing deliberations over the plausibility that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, Labour MP Kate Osamor was suspended after calling Israel’s onslaught a genocide. His purge has also extended to Labour councillors, or local government elected representatives, who have called for a ceasefire.

Since taking over from Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2020, Starmer has focused on steering the party away from the policies of his left-wing predecessor. Corbyn's tenure, known for its pro-Palestinian advocacy and calls to halt arms sales to Israel, also triggered allegations of antisemitism.

That stigma has significantly shaped Starmer's cautious approach to ensuring pro-Palestine and anti-Israel voices do not influence the party's discourse, even to the extent that he suspended Corbyn from the party in 2020.

"Galloway's victory won't significantly derail Starmer's electoral chances, but it may play a part in the wider pressure on Starmer and Sunak"

However, the events in Gaza have thrown a curveball at his attempts to maintain a solid party line. He’ll no doubt hope international efforts to achieve a ceasefire succeed before the election, without him having to change his own position.

“Labour MPs representing constituencies with significant pro-Palestinian populations, both Muslim and non-Muslim, are acutely aware of this discord,” said Dr Curtis.

“The concern now is that this could encourage more pro-Palestinian candidates to stand in future elections,” he added, while noting that such challenges would likely require a well-funded, organised movement.

Widening the front

The desire for fresh faces to take on Starmer and his allies extends beyond Rochdale, triggering hopes for new movements.

Andrew Feinstein, a former member of South Africa’s ANC under Nelson Mandela and leading arms-trade critic, has signalled his willingness to stand as an MP in Keir Starmer’s own constituency, Holborn St. Pancras, where Feinstein lives.

Feinstein, who warned Starmer is turning Labour “back into a neo-liberal, pro-war party where progressives have no place anymore,” was chosen to run for that seat by a group called OSICA - aligned with Jeremy Corbyn’s views – which aims to organise a parallel movement poised to challenge Starmer and his allies.

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Separately, talks of a new mass movement outside of Labour have emerged. Feinstein, who recently announced the initiative called Collective, said it focused on “uniting sections of the left and will eventually transform into a new political party”. That movement may field independent candidates in local and parliamentary elections after the upcoming general election.

Ahead of the upcoming election, the SNP, whose leader Humza Yousaf has been outspoken over the Westminster government’s failure to call for a ceasefire, many also challenge Labour. That party may hope to leverage differences between Labour and its own position on Gaza to upset Labour’s chances of winning seats within Scotland.

As grave as it is, the crisis in Gaza probably won’t single-handedly derail Starmer’s hopes of a majority electoral victory. Yet as evidenced in other recent by-elections, Labour’s resurgence comes almost exclusively on the back the Conservatives’ dire popularity, with voters determined to get rid of them following Britain’s economic and cost-of-living crisis after their fourteen years in power.   

That would put pressure on Starmer once in power; if he doesn't listen to the public's demand for wider change, he risks losing their support. Whether a wider movement can disrupt Labour in the future and fill the vacuum remains to be seen. But if Starmer fails to respond to calls for change, we shouldn’t rule it out.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey