Pro-Palestinian firebrand politician wins UK byelection in blow to main opposition Labour Party

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Britain’s opposition Labour Party, widely expected to win a general election due to be held within months, has lost one of its safest parliamentary seats to a pro-Palestinian former party member in a chaotic by-election.

Veteran left-winger George Galloway was elected to represent the constituency of Rochdale by a majority of nearly 6,000 votes, pledging to be a thorn in the side for Labour over the Gaza war.

The by-election, a special election held outside of the general election cycle, had attracted particular attention because Labour was forced to withdraw support from its candidate, Azhar Ali, after videos emerged of him claiming that Israel was complicit in the October 7 Hamas attacks.

The comments turned the campaign, sparked by the death of the local MP, on its head. Labour initially stood by Ali, only to withdraw their support but too close to the by-election to put forward another candidate.

This created an opportunity for Galloway, who has a long history of campaigning in areas that have a large Muslim population and appealing, critics say distastefully, for their votes.

In the days running up to the byelection, the political editor of the Sun, a popular British tabloid, discovered campaign material from Galloway that had been sent specifically to Muslim voters, saying: “The political class has failed Rochdale, failed Britain and failed Gaza … the Labour Party under Keir Starmer have betrayed Muslims, choosing instead to support Israel’s genocide in Gaza … I, George Galloway, have fought for Muslims at home and abroad all of my life. And paid a price for it.”

The Labour Party has been walking a difficult tightrope since the start of the Israel-Hamas war of calling for a pause in violence without wanting to criticize Israel. The issue of Israel is particularly sensitive, because Labour was until very recently embroiled in an anti-Semitism scandal under previous leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party in 2003 after he opposed then Prime Minister and Labour leader Tony Blair’s support for the war in Iraq.

He made a memorable and defiant appearance at a US Senate panel to answer accusations he had profited from Iraqi oil sales, accusing the panel’s Republican chairman of making a “schoolboy howler.”

While Galloway can claim to have always been a supporter of Muslim causes and Palestinians, he has been accused of using anti-Semitic tropes. He was sacked by the radio station TalkSport after he tweeted: “No #Israël flags on the Cup!” after English soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, who have strong links to the North London Jewish community, were defeated in the Champion’s League final in 2019. Galloway has previously denied allegations of anti-Semitism.

He has also worked for state-funded media, RT and Press TV, owned by Russia and Iran respectively. Both channels have had their broadcast licences banned in the UK and been accused of peddling propaganda.

Galloway’s victory is noteworthy for the context in which it took place, but doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the general election that will take place at some point this year. Had Labour not had to abandon its candidate, it is likely the seat would have held.

It does send a warning, however, to Starmer and the Labour Party about the need to properly screen candidates, as it could be badly hurt by similar stories emerging in the run up to the general election.

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