18 February 2024

Weekly briefing: A message to Rochdale


Over the last couple of centuries, the Greater Manchester constituency of Rochdale has suffered quite the fall from grace. Once revered for its wealth and represented by the great free-marketeer Richard Cobden, the old manufacturing town is now notorious for a major grooming gang scandal and for being the constituency that voted in the odious Cyril Smith.

Now, Rochdale is in the news again. This time for playing host to one of the most toxic by-elections in recent memory.

This week, under the weight of media scrutiny, the Labour Party withdrew support for its candidate Azhar Ali following remarks he made about Jews and the state of Israel. According to Ali, ‘people in the media from certain Jewish quarters’ were to blame for Andy McDonald’s suspension from the Labour Party. But even more grotesque (somehow) was Ali’s assertion that Benjamin Netanyahu ‘deliberately took the security off’ and ‘allowed the (October 7) massacre’.

It should also be mentioned that only a day after Starmer suspended Ali, he had to suspend another candidate, Graham Jones, for similar reasons. Which suggests the ‘changed Labour Party’ may not have changed as much as its leader hoped.

But what the red mist surrounding the Ali debacle has obscured is the real spectre haunting this by-election – George Galloway.

Galloway has been knocking around the UK political scene for years. In the 1987 election, the young Galloway defeated the SDP’s Roy Jenkins in Glasgow Hillhead, winning the seat for Labour. He held this seat for the next decade, during which time he certainly had his hands full. In addition to his constituency duties (historically not his forte), he had his first meeting with Saddam Hussein, during which he saluted the tyrant for his ‘courage’, ‘strength’, and ‘indefatigability’. Such deference for a dictator is par for the course for a man who later described the collapse of the Soviet Union as ‘the biggest catastrophe of my life’.

On returning to Britain from Baghdad, Galloway was the subject of a media frenzy and was rightly lambasted by then Labour leader John Smith, and would eventually leave the party. Yet it set the tone for the rest of his career.

In the intervening years, many have chronicled the bizarre twists of Galloway’s political exploits, but there’s a good summary in this Spectator piece from CapX’s Editor-in-Chief, Robert Colvile. Written in 2015, as Galloway was running for London Mayor, it explained how he would win seats by whipping up the grievances of Muslim voters – only to lose them again once the residents had discovered what being represented by Galloway actually meant.

During his tenure in Bradford West, for example, Galloway had not just neglected his constituency for the sake of global grandstanding (including raking in huge fees for appearances on media stations owned by hostile states). As Robert reported, he ‘alienated female constituents by claiming Julian Assange was guilty not of rape but ‘bad sexual etiquette’,’ using the defence that ‘not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion’. He also denied that Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons and declared Bradford an ‘Israel-free zone’.

And then, in 2015, came what was – until Rochdale – one of the ugliest elections in recent British history. Labour candidate Naz Shah, Robert wrote, ‘was open about her traumatic history: abandoned by her father at six; sent to Pakistan to escape the depredations of her mother’s drug-dealer partner, whom her mother later murdered, at 12; subject to a forced marriage at 15. Instead of sympathy, she received horrendous abuse. Galloway accused her of being a ‘liar’, of leading a ‘squalid, sorry life’, of the ‘slander of her own family, community and city’, of peddling ‘racist stereotypes’.

Although Galloway has once more changed parties (he now heads up the Workers Party of Britain), he certainly hasn’t changed his stripes. A cursory glance at his YouTube channel provides evidence of exactly the same tactics he’s always deployed. One of his recent videos is entitled ‘How they weaponised antisemitism’, in which he opens by asking ‘Why are Labour so obsessed with Israel?’ Fairly rum coming from a man who has built a career by obsessing over Middle Eastern affairs, and who is now weaponising the human tragedy in Gaza for political gain in England.

I am not a resident of Rochdale, and I have no power to dictate how people far away from me should vote. However, if you’re considering putting a tick next to George Galloway’s box, try to see past the oratory and expensive suits and think deeply about his record. For what you will find is a man hellbent on self-promotion at all costs, while having absolutely no regard for the voters he is intent on representing.

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Joseph Dinnage is Deputy Editor of Capx.