The only winners will be the losers

Former Labour candidate for Rochdale, Azhar Ali launches his by-election campaign on February 07, 2024 in Rochdale, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

When the Rochdale by-election results come in on 29 February, you would be forgiven for thinking it was an identity parade.

Rochdale has showcased a lack of political choice, and poor process for selecting candidates, but out of this pretty dire situation, there will be winners too. 

First and foremost, however, there will be the losers.

This week has been punctuated by poor decision making from the Labour leadership.

Azhar Ali, Labour’s candidate, was forced into an apology after he appeared to say Israel had “allowed” the deadly 7 October attacks, in order to launch its offensive in Gaza.

He was then forced into a mealy-mouthed apology insisting “Hamas’s horrific terror attack was the responsibility of Hamas alone”. 

The damage was done, however, with just about every Tory MP taking to Twitter claiming the Labour Party had not changed a jot since Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour initially stood by Ali, presumably for the understandable reason that they did not want George Galloway (who is running as an independent candidate) to get into Westminster. 

They even brought out Jewish Labour grandee Dame Louise Ellman, to say that while she was “appalled” at the comments, she had “known Azhar for over 20 years and he consistently supported me when I was subjected to antisemitic attacks”, that she considered him an “ally, which makes these comments out of character”.

She called for him to get a second chance. But it was in vain.

Not 24 hours later, Labour decided to get rid of Ali, as the weight of Tory attacks on the party grew stronger. 

But there was a twist in the tail.

It emerged that the leaked memo of what Ali had said, came from… a local Jeremy Corbyn supporter.

John Mann, the former Bassetlaw MP and the government’s so-called ‘antisemitism Tsar’ went onto LBC, and said: “It was known there was more from Ali. That was known yesterday morning, it didn’t suddenly come out yesterday evening.”

“How do I know – someone told me? This was someone ‘in the know’. Starmer has been badly let down”.

Sure enough, today, it was reported more comments emerged, including Ali’s supposed opposition to the suspension of Andy McDonald MP, which he reportedly blamed on “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters”.

Labour stood by this former Tony Blair and Gordon Brown adviser, an ally of Ellman, a backer of Starmer because he was their man.

Ali was seemingly exposed by Corbyn’s supporters who leaked the memo after the threshold had passed for changing candidates – to cause maximum damage. 

What a mess. 

This infighting will now mean Labour has no candidate at all.

Even before the vote comes in, and even if Labour’s former man Azhar Ali wins, Keir Starmer has lost this one. And it’s almost entirely of their own making.

Traditional Labour voters therefore have to think carefully about who they vote for.

Do they back Ali, and have an independent MP who will almost certainly not be allowed back into the party? Or do they look at the alternatives?

The ideological alternatives are two disgraced former Labour MPs. 

George Galloway, the ex-Labour firebrand, also formerly of Respect, is standing under the banner of the Workers Party of Britain, but the party name is irrelevant. 

He is seeking to return to Westminster, having lost his seat in 2015, on the single issue of Palestine.

Galloway, known for his unapologetic and charismatic oration, has appealed to local voters on the issue of Gaza, in the wake of plummeting trust in Labour among British Muslims in particular, who are at odds with Starmer’s stance on the issue.

He has tapped into a real-time desire for an alternative to Starmer, which has been reinforced by the delayed suspension of Ali. 

Galloway is now leading the polls, which may be a relief for Sadiq Khan, as it means he won’t challenge for the London mayoralty if he wins in Rochdale.

The other option in Rochdale is Simon Danczuk of Reform UK. He is the former representative of the constituency, before being booted out for sending explicit text messages to a 17-year-old. 

And it doesn’t stop there. 

The Greens also had to disavow their candidate, after posts from 2016 showed he had indulged in anti-Islamic rhetoric. 

With an outside chance, are the embattled Tories, who have landscaper Paul Ellison, Rochdale Man of the Year in 2020, and Iain Donaldson of the Lib Dems (remember them?). 

While not many will be saying Paul Ellison or Iain Donaldson’s names on the doorstep, they may cash in on the despair of alternatives at the ballot box.

Rochdale is facing a choice between a Hamas truther, George Galloway, someone suspended for sending sexually explicit texts to a young woman, and an Islamophobe, or Rochdale Man of the Year in 2020,

It’s no wonder the winners of this by-election are least likely those who are actually going to be victorious. 

One thing is for sure. Whoever wins, everyone loses.

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