Rochdale by-election: ‘Town’s troubles cut through more than Labour’s scandal’

Ed Hodgson
Angela Rayner, centre, with Azhar Ali, right. Photo: Labour Party

With Labour’s large lead and the Conservatives’ dwindling performance in opinion polls, byelections in the UK have all begun to feel very similar. 

Looking back, the story in Selby was not that different to the story in Mid Bedfordshire a couple of months later, which was not that different to the byelection in Wellingborough a couple of weeks ago. In every case, Labour has been able to overturn hefty Conservative majorities based on a relatively simple anti-Tory message.

The by-election that will take place this week in Rochdale is anything but simple. 

The political situation is in chaos

Whilst Rochdale should be a safe Labour seat, a spate of scandals – that I don’t need to repeat here – has thrown the political situation into chaos. The race in Rochdale is now between three candidates who have at one point been suspended or kicked out of Labour.

One of those candidates is George Galloway – standing for his Workers’ Party on what is essentially a single-issue pro-Gaza ticket, following his pattern of standing in constituencies with large Muslim populations.

But, having spoken to a range of Rochdalians in a series of focus groups over the last week, the most striking thing about the race is how little of it seems to have cut-through. 

But Westminster is utterly disconnected from voters in the town

In this by-election perhaps more than any other this parliament, topics that have dominated conversation in Westminster seem utterly disconnected from the key issues concerning voters. Sure, residents had heard of scandals surrounding candidates, but this was far from what they wanted to talk about.

Instead, all of the people we spoke to – including Muslim voters, former Tory voters and some loyal Labour voters – had stories of what they saw as Rochdale’s decline. Allen described how he felt it was no longer safe to take his children into the town centre. Saiqa spoke of how she had spent every morning for the last week on the phone to the GP trying to book an appointment for her daughter. Charlotte described her worries that her children are now having to eat less healthy food as a result of rising costs.

When residents had heard the views of their different candidates, it was almost always about their position on Palestine, rather than their proposals for these local issues. And while many of the participants in these groups wanted Labour to be more robust in its position on Palestine, and wanted politicians to be doing more to push for peace in Gaza and to address the humanitarian situation, they wanted their local candidates to be campaigning on Rochdale’s issues first.

Residents want this election to be about Rochdale’s issues

Allen’s metaphors summed up the groups’ mood: “I do think we need to address [the situation in Gaza] because if we see a bully in the playground, you’d try and help that out. But I think we should get our own house order before we start. If I didn’t have a roof and my house was flooded, and someone knocked for charity, I’d be looking after my own house face before I give anything …The country’s burning and we need to look after that first”.

Or, as summarised by Rafia: “There’s no point in you tackling world peace when the area you live in is a shithole”.

This is the real tragedy of Rochdale’s by-election. By-elections should give voters an opportunity to send a signal about what they care about and why – giving people a chance to elect a new local champion to argue and stand up for the concerns of the constituency. 

And people in Rochdale certainly have a lot of concerns. But voters we spoke to did not think the candidates were talking enough about them.

If George Galloway wins it will be on the back of a low turnout vote

If Azhar Ali – the former Labour candidate – wins, it will likely be on the back of the strong brand of the Labour party logo next to his name rather than significant support for his views on the October 7th attacks. 

None of the participants in our groups had heard Ali’s policy proposals – even if most were positive about Labour in general. There was even more confusion about his position on Israel. Some had seen his comments aligning himself with Starmer at the start of the campaign, whereas others had heard of the controversy surrounding his later comments about Israel.

If George Galloway – the independent candidate and current bookmakers’ favourite – wins, it will be on the back of a low-turnout, highly engaged vote – rather than a sign that all Rochdalians welcome his politics.

But people we spoke to weren’t convinced by his “cheap shot” messaging

A number of participants had seen pro-Galloway campaign materials around the town, or videos of him campaigning. When we showed an image of one leaflet claiming that the election is between “George Galloway who will fight for Palestine and the people of Rochdale – and Keir Starmer who will fight for Israel”, people immediately dismissed the comments as unrealistic and divisive – describing it as “distasteful” and a “cheap shot”.

Whatever the result, one thing we can say for certain is that we won’t be able to conclude much of anything about the forthcoming general election based on this by-election result – either nationally or even in Rochdale. The circumstances and disconnect between the concerns of more engaged by-election voters and the rest of the population are too great.

In another world, this by-election would have been an opportunity for the people of Rochdale to finally feel listened to. Instead, some we spoke to at least feel they have been spoken over by candidates who have attracted attention more to themselves than to the needs of the constituency.

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