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Rochdale voters to decide new MP amid Gaza conflict chaos

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VOTERS began to cast their ballots as the Rochdale by-election got underway on Thursday (29) amid a turbulent atmosphere primarily influenced by the conflict in Gaza.

Bookmakers predict Left-winger George Galloway, 69, leader of the Workers Party of Britain, will win, especially after Labour withdrew its candidate, Azhar Ali, due to his controversial remarks about Israel.

Galloway, a former Labour MP, regards the election as a significant statement on Gaza and aims to secure the support of many disillusioned Muslim voters.

Labour initially anticipated strengthening its significant lead of 9,668 votes in the Greater Manchester area, until concerns arose over its Ali, who had echoed anti-Israel conspiracy theories related to the October 7 attack by Hamas.

Ali remains on the ballot, although it was too late to substitute another candidate. If victorious, he will serve as an independent MP.

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The result is anticipated around 3am on Friday (1).

The by-election was triggered by the passing of Rochdale’s MP, Sir Tony Lloyd, due to leukemia on January 17.

Galloway is projected to benefit the most from the confusion, having campaigned on a pro-Palestine platform directed at Rochdale’s Muslim community, constituting roughly 30 per cent of the population.

An outspoken Scot, Galloway said he wanted to highlight the sense of Rochdale’s decline, local governance and the need for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“Gaza obviously matters … not only (to) Muslims, certainly all Muslims, but also many others,” Galloway said.

“(Rochdale) had an identity and that identity has been gradually erased. So I’m trying to put Rochdale back on the map, nationally and internationally.”

Other parties say Galloway is a political opportunist who has turned up to capitalise on Rochdale’s troubles.

“Obviously, we’ve had a lot of outsiders come in and this by-election is somewhat strange now, but I’m here for the people of Rochdale,” said Paul Ellison, who is standing as the Tory candidate.

Galloway said it was “Labour schtick” to suggest he was an opportunist, adding that he had long connections with the Manchester regions and knew the town well.

Labour has been engulfed by an internal battle over its policy towards the Gaza conflict, after its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, initially gave full backing to Israel following the October 7 attack. The party has recently called for a ceasefire.
While the result of Thursday’s vote is unlikely to dent Labour’s standing in the opinion polls, fielding no candidate robs it of the momentum it was building after winning two seats from the governing Tories this month, potentially just months ahead of a national election.

Galloway had himself been thrown out of Labour more than two decades ago over his opposition to the Iraq war, and went on to represent two other parliamentary seats, including Bradford, which he declared an “Israel-free zone” in 2014.

‘Most deprived local authority’

Locals in Rochdale, a former cotton mill town which sits 10 miles (16 km) north of Manchester, look on with bewilderment.

“I think it’s pointless really. What are they actually going to do for the community?” asked Jagga Singh, 33, who manages market stalls in the town centre.

“Our town is going downhill, every single day. I’ve been supporting Labour all my life, my family as well. But what have they actually done for us? Nothing.”

Rochdale in 2019 ranked in the top five per cent most deprived local authorities in England, according to official statistics.

Almost one in five of its residents are Asian by ethnic group – double the proportion nationally.

While a new shopping complex and refurbished town hall dominate the centre of Rochdale, much of the rest of the town comprises rows of small, Victorian terraced houses. Pro-Palestine slogans adorn brick walls in some areas.

Pensioner Brian Edwards, standing with his wife Pat outside the town hall, said he doubted Galloway could provide any answers.

“I can’t be doing with the fella,” he said.

“We’ve lived here a long, long, time … It used to be a nice town. But I don’t know what’s going on now.”

(with inputs from Reuters)

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