‘This Is For Gaza’: George Galloway, Leftist Firebrand, Wins Rochdale By-Election

As he celebrated victory early Friday after winning a parliamentary election, George Galloway, a veteran left-wing firebrand, directed his attack squarely at the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party.

“Keir Starmer, this is for Gaza,” Mr. Galloway said, wearing the fedora hat that has become his trademark. “You have paid, and you will pay, a high price for the role you have played in enabling, encouraging and covering for the catastrophe presently going on.”

Mr. Galloway won the election — for a seat in Rochdale, north of Manchester, that had previously been held by Labour — after a chaotic campaign that became emblematic of the anger that has swept through British politics over the war in Gaza.

Voting took place on Thursday to replace Tony Lloyd, a Labour Party lawmaker who had represented the district but died of blood cancer in January. Mr. Galloway achieved a clear victory, with 12,335 votes.

Mr. Galloway, founder of the far-left Workers Party of Britain, once represented Labour in Parliament, but he was forced out of the party in 2003 over his outspoken criticism of the Iraq war.

Victory in Rochdale was the latest act of revenge from a maverick politician who had run in several previous elections against his former party, sometimes successfully. Mr. Galloway has a long history of fierce and at times inflammatory rhetoric, and he has a flair for generating publicity.

He met with Saddam Hussein in 1994, for example, telling the Iraqi dictator, “I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”

In 2003, he referred to Tony Blair, then Britain’s prime minister, and George W. Bush, then the U.S. president, as “wolves” for invading Iraq, and he urged British troops to ignore military orders that he called illegal. Mr. Galloway was forced out of the Labour Party later that year but, with the turmoil that unfolded after the invasion, he had a powerful issue on which to campaign. He went on to win parliamentary seats in 2005 in Bethnal Green in eastern London, and in 2012 in Bradford West, in northern England, both times for the Respect Party.

In 2009, while he was a member of Parliament, Mr. Galloway was criticized by a British media regulator for breaking impartiality rules during programs he presented on Press TV, an Iranian state-owned network.

For a time, he appeared regularly on Russia Today, declaring tens of thousands of pounds in income from the broadcaster in 2014 and 2015. Not all of his media appearances have been political, however. In 2006, he appeared on “Celebrity Big Brother,” a reality TV show in Britain, where at one point he surprised viewers by role playing as a cat and licking another contestant’s hands.

In Rochdale, Labour had inadvertently made it easier for Mr. Galloway when it was forced to suspend its own candidate, Azhar Ali, essentially leaving the seat undefended. Mr. Ali had been recorded claiming that Israel had “allowed” Hamas to go ahead with the Oct. 7 attacks as a pretext to invade Gaza. He later issued a statement saying that he apologized “unreservedly to the Jewish community for my comments which were deeply offensive, ignorant, and false.”

The debacle was a particular embarrassment for Mr. Starmer, who has made a big push to root out the antisemitism that afflicted Labour under the leadership of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

To make matters worse, by the time Mr. Starmer acted against Mr. Ali, it was too late to replace him, and his name remained on the ballot for the Thursday election, attracting 2,402 votes. David Tully, an independent, came second with 6,638 votes.

On Friday Mr. Starmer apologized to the voters of Rochdale for failing to run an official Labour candidate but insisted that disowning Mr. Ali had been the right thing to do.

Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said it was “beyond alarming” that the voters of Rochdale had elected Mr. Galloway.

“The time has now come for us all to stand together to combat the forces of division and beat this poison,” Mr. Sunak said in a speech made from the steps of 10 Downing Street. “We must face down the extremists who would tear us apart.”

Not for the first time in his career, Mr. Galloway appealed directly to Muslim voters, who make up around 30 percent of the electorate in Rochdale. Many of them have expressed anger about the rising death toll and humanitarian crisis in Gaza and want Britain to press harder for an immediate cease-fire.

In his campaign literature, Mr. Galloway described Mr. Starmer as a “top supporter of Israel” and suggested his leadership could be weakened by the outcome of the vote. “Imagine — the people of Rochdale coming together to topple the hated Labour leader,” the leaflet said.

That prospect may be fanciful as recent polling suggests that voters favor Mr. Starmer over other politicians, while Labour appears to have a strong lead ahead of a national election expected this year.

Referring to Mr. Galloway, Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University, said, “He’s a one-off, you can’t clone him.”

“He does have a remarkable campaigning ability, he’s very good at intuiting the emotive lines that will land in any particular context, and he’s proved that again,” Professor Ford added.

While Mr. Galloway’s success is therefore unlikely to be repeated elsewhere, there are still some implications for Labour. “It’s going to affect internal Labour party politics in the run-up to the election; it’s going to affect the conversations about how to fight the general election campaign,” Professor Ford said.

Returning to Parliament, Mr. Galloway is likely to do his best to be a thorn in Labour’s side and to try to exploit internal party tensions over the Middle East.

On Friday, he used a characteristically crude image to equate Mr. Starmer’s policy with that of Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, calling them “two cheeks of the same backside.”

“They both got well and truly spanked tonight here in Rochdale,” Mr. Galloway said.

The one bright spot for Mr. Starmer is that, with the general election looming, Mr. Galloway will have to battle for re-election soon if he wants to stay a lawmaker for more than a few months.

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