SPECIAL REPORT: George Galloway accused of ‘using’ Rochdale’s Muslim community

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SPECIAL REPORT: George Galloway accused of ‘using’ Rochdale’s Muslim community

A renegade candidate and Labour in turmoil – all eyes are on next week’s by-election as recent events make the result anything but a foregone conclusion

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Vote George Galloway signs in Rochdale
Vote George Galloway signs in Rochdale

Muslim voters in the Greater Manchester by-election town of Rochdale this week openly expressed fears to Jewish News that the veteran anti-Zionist campaigner George Galloway is “using us” as he attempts to secure victory in the polls.

One local businessman, who identified himself as being of British-Palestinian background, said he had been visiting his family in Gaza for a wedding at the same time of the 7 October atrocity in southern Israel.

The man pointed directly toward a campaign poster urging voters to back the outspoken former MP in the 29 February by-election and opined: “You know we’ve got George Galloway?… I think he’s using us.”

Noor, who said he did not want to give his full name as he was a successful local businessman who did not want to become embroiled in political disputes, said he had been one of the fortunate few to be able as a British passport holder to escape the conflict in Gaza on 10 October.

He admitted to fearing “every minute of the day” for the safety of his family who remained in Gaza after he had had to leave them behind in Rafah.

It was his view, he said, that both Hamas and the Israeli military “should face justice” once the deadly conflict was over.

George Galloway in Rochdale

With the former Respect Party and now Workers Party of Britain leader Galloway’s campaign in Rochdale centring almost entirely on his claim to Muslim voters to be standing up for the people of Palestine, it would have been no surprise to hear Noor saying he was going to vote for him.

The businessman was not alone, however, in expressing concern about the former Bradford West MP’s track record. Outside Ahmed’s Islamic Book on Durham Street, Jewish News also spoke with Majid, who said he worked in a local butcher’s store.

“Many people will vote for George Galloway on 29 February, but there are also lots of people I know who are asking questions about him,” said Majid.

“This man always turns up for elections making promises to local Muslims, but what has he ever actually done for us?

“Yes, I am concerned about what has happened in Gaza. But I am concerned about what is happening here in Rochdale.”

Outside the nearby Neeli Mosque, Mohammed Amin, who says he is now retired, also spoke for many when he told Jewish News: “I have not even thought about this by-election. I do not even know if I will vote.”

It would be incorrect, however, to suggest that Galloway does not stand a chance of winning the race in Rochdale.

A stroll round some of the more heavily Muslim populated areas of the town reveals plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise, with plenty of shops and houses displaying signs and posters in support of the former Big Brother contestant.

But it is also clear not all Muslim voters in Rochdale, who make up around 20 percent of the electorate in the town, are backing Galloway.

Just like the Jewish communities around the country, Muslim voters can often be more politically engaged than others.

George Galloway’s campaign material, and a pro-Palestine poster up in Batley and Spen (Picture credit: Lee Harpin)

It was also apparent on the day Jewish News visited last week there was none of the feverish support for Galloway his campaign supporters have attempted to claim exists in the town as the countdown to polling day approaches.

On the other hand: “I will vote for George because I care about Gaza,” one Rochale local told Jewish News, as he walked out from purchasing meat at a halal butcher store.

“It’s Galloway all the way,” said another. “He is the only candidate that is speaking up for Muslims.”

A Galloway victory was also made more likely after the Labour candidate was exposed in a recording sent to the Mail on Sunday for making openly antisemitic comments.

Azhar Ali, the Lancashire Labour Group leader was overheard telling a small meeting of councillors and activists that Israel had “allowed” the 7 October Hamas attack in order to “get rid of [Palestinians] from Gaza” and “grab” the land.

A further reported antisemitic remark saw him blame “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for the suspension of pro-Palestinian MP Andy McDonald from the Labour Party.

As another antisemitism storm erupted around the party, Labour leader Keir Starmer was forced to confirm Labour had taken the near-unprecedented step of withdrawing its support for Ali at the by-election.

Ali had been chosen as the Labour candidate after the death of Sir Tony Lloyd, the previous MP for Rochdale who romped home aftersecuring a majority of more than 9,000 in the 2019 general election.

This month’s by-election looked like a certain win for Starmer’s party, but now, in the aftermath of the Ali antisemitism scandal, the bookies have made Galloway the favourite to land the seat.

This has left some long-time Labour supporters seemingly genuinely unsure about where they will place their cross when election day finally comes.

“I’m really stuck what to do, I really don’t know,” admitted Tony, a security guard at a Rochdale indoor shopping centre.

“It was stupid thing for him [Azhar Ali] to say – you shouldn’t get involved with conspiracies.

“I’ve been WhatsApping my friends, all Labour supporters, and we are all in the same boat.”

George Galloway’s inflammatory Batley and Spen poster saying Starmer out

Meanwhile Miah, who said she was currently taking time away from her job as a hairdresser to bring up her and her husband’s one-year old son, also admitted being unsure how to vote now.

“Some people I know are saying they will vote Labour because they always have done,” she said.

“But like me, others wish we had a Labour candidate who wasn’t more concerned with foreign affairs than he was with what is going on here in Rochdale. It’s all a bit of a mess really.”

Jewish News also spoke with local people whose busy lives meant they had yet to hear about the antisemitism scandal that had left Labour withdrawing support for their candidate.

This could explain why the bookies have left Ali as second favourite to win the by-election.

But if Ali is elected, Labour will be expected to withdraw the whip immediately and the councillor will sit as an independent MP.

In truth, the voters of Rochdale have not been treated well at all by those seeking to represent the town in Westminster.

Days before the scandal erupted over the Labour candidate, the Greens had been forced to withdraw their support for their own candidate after it emerged that he had made anti-Muslim social media posts in the past.

Galloway also faces a challenge at the election from another former Labour MP, Simon Danczuk, who is now standing for the pro-Brexit Reform UK party.

Danczuk, 57, represented Rochdale for seven years between 2010 and 2017 but he was suspended from Labour in 2015 after sending explicit text messages to a teenage girl and served the rest of his term as an independent.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have selected community champion Paul Ellison, 41, a well-known local volunteer and businessman, as their candidate, but support for Rishi Sunak’s party seemed thin on the ground on the streets of Rochdale.

The Lib Dems had been running what was seen as a decidedly low-key campaign with their candidate Iain Donaldson, but have now moved to bolster their efforts in the wake of the Ali scandal.

Back to George Galloway, Jewish News has learned that there is considerable concern among some communal leaders about the impact across the region of a possible Galloway victory.

While Rochdale’s own Jewish history is limited, the big communities in areas such as Bury and in Prestwich are only a few miles away.

Until he was exposed for making antisemitic remarks, Azhar Ali had played a leading role in the Muslims Against Antisemitism group, which had exposed many individuals for anti-Jewish racism.

George Galloway launches Rochdale By-Election campaign in front of Palestinian flag

Ali had also held a successful meeting with the Jewish Representative Council of Greater Manchester to discuss inter-faith relations just three days before the
Mail On Sunday published its recording of the antisemitic remarks he had made at the meeting last October.

Former Labour MP Dame Louise Ellman had also confirmed that Ali had defended her on several occasions when she came under attack from “Islamist” activists.

But all concerned now accept that the comments made by Ali were indefensible – a clear case of an individual who had a track record of saying one thing to the Jewish community, but entirely different things to another.

Which leaves Rochdale with the “nightmare prospect” of waking up to having George Galloway as its MP by the end of next week.

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