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Middle East conflict defines bizarre by-election in northern English town

ROCHDALE, England – Feb 29: Workers Party of Britain candidate George Galloway speaks after being declared the winner in the Rochdale by-election on February 29, 2024.

Christopher Furlong | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Staunchly pro-Palestinian left-wing firebrand George Galloway on Thursday won a chaotic by-election in Rochdale, northwestern England that was defined by the Israel-Gaza conflict.

The controversial former Labour MP, who was standing for the Workers Party of Britain, won 12,335 votes with a majority of 5,697, giving his party its first-ever Member of Parliament in Britain’s House of Commons. It will be Galloway’s fifth constituency in 37 years, having now unseated his former party in three separate elections.

Galloway ran a campaign heavily focused on the plight of Palestinians, appealing to the Muslim voters that make up around 30% of the local electorate, many of whom voiced anger about the war in Gaza and the failure of the country’s two main parties to push for an immediate ceasefire.

ROCHDALE, England – Feb. 29, 2023: A man walks past a George Galloway election sign as residents begin to vote in the Rochdale by-election on February 29, 2024 in Rochdale, England. 

Christopher Furlong | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Second place in the by-election went to an independent candidate, local businessman Paul Tully, who only began his political career four weeks ago but managed to secure 6,638 votes.

The election in one of England’s most deprived towns was blown wide open when the main opposition Labour Party, previously a shoo-in for the seat, withdrew its support for its candidate Azhar Ali after recordings surfaced of alleged antisemitic comments.

As the party’s support was withdrawn so close to the election, it was too late to remove his name from the ballot or for the party — which is the overwhelming favorite to win the country’s general election later this year — to field another candidate.

Without Labour Party backing, Ali picked up just 2,402 votes, behind Conservative Paul Ellison with 3,371, marking another poor showing for the ruling party that has suffered a string of by-election defeats over the past year.

ROCHDALE, England – Feb. 19, 2024: People walk past pro-Palestinian graffiti in Rochdale on February 19, 2024 in Rochdale, England.

Christopher Furlong | Getty Images News | Getty Images

In his victory speech, Galloway directly attacked Labour leader Keir Starmer and Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

“Keir Starmer, this is for Gaza. You will pay a high price for the role that you have played in enabling, encouraging and covering for the catastrophe presently going on in occupied Palestine, in the Gaza Strip,” he said.

Starmer has called for a “ceasefire that lasts” after months of pressure from within his own Labour Party and from the Scottish National Party in parliament. However, Labour’s official position has been to focus on a sustainable negotiated ceasefire agreed by both sides of the conflict, rather than to issue demands for an immediate ceasefire to Israel without the same guarantee from Hamas.

The by-election was called following the death in January of the town’s Labour MP Tony Lloyd from leukaemia.

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