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Rochdale voters left cold by byelection chaos

Rochdale voters left cold by byelection chaos

<span>Workers Party of Britain leader George Galloway speaking at a rally after Friday prayers at the Bilal Mosque in Rochdale.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>

Workers Party of Britain leader George Galloway speaking at a rally after Friday prayers at the Bilal Mosque in Rochdale.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Byelections are traditionally a chance for voters to lodge a protest vote. But when the people of Rochdale go to the polls on Thursday, they have barely anyone to protest against.

The Labour and Green parties have ditched their candidates. The Conservative was abroad on a long-planned family holiday the week before polling day. The Lib Dem remains, but pulled out of the most high-profile political event, a local BBC radio debate.

The most energetic campaigning last week came instead from the political fringe: George Galloway, serial byelection winner and founder of the Workers Party of Britain, and Simon Danczuk, the town’s former Labour MP who was suspended by the party for sexting a 17-year-old girl and is now standing for Reform UK.

“We don’t deserve this,” said Margaret King, standing outside Marks & Spencer. “This town does not deserve to be this short of anybody decent to vote for.” This time she’s ­voting for one of the local independents.

“We’ve been Lib Dem for a long time, back to Cyril Smith, but when I think back I can’t believe I voted for him. There’s too many shadows on this town.”

It’s true that Rochdale’s shadows are long: Smith’s decades of child abuse and the grooming gangs whose teenage victims were failed by police are the most obvious. But the town, on the edge of Greater Manchester, notable as the birthplace of the modern co-operative movement and once one of the world’s foremost cotton processing centres, has other issues too. The Wheatsheaf shopping centre has been shut down and outside the town centre there is a proliferation of pawn shops and people sleeping rough.

There is also a shiny new shopping precinct called Riverside and the newly revamped town hall – an imposing neo-Gothic building which, Rochdalians are quick to remind visitors, Hitler was so impressed by that he wanted it dismantled and rebuilt in Bavaria.

A little way south is Milkstone Road, thriving with south Asian restaurants, halal butchers and sweet shops selling laddoo, burfee and other treats popular with the 30% of Rochdale residents who are Muslim, many of Pakistani, Kashmiri or Bangladeshi origin. Galloway has done much of his campaigning around here, and on Friday he toured the mosques to talk to worshippers as they spilled out on to the pavements after prayers. The 69-year-old has made Gaza his focus in an appeal to Muslims horrified by events there and dismayed that Keir Starmer has not taken a stronger stance on the issue.

“My father supported Labour, my mother, my uncle, my sisters, my brothers,” said Maqsood Ahmad, sitting in a branch of Chaiiwala having heard Galloway’s pitch. “But they are not listening to us. You can’t tell the difference between them and the government.

“George Galloway may not be able to do anything about it, but the message we’re sending is ‘Don’t take our vote for granted.’”

Only 60% of British Muslims who voted Labour in 2019 plan to do so again this year. Galloway hopes those in Rochdale will be more motivated, and therefore more important if turnout is low. He is a veteran of byelection campaigns, having defeated Labour in polls in Bradford West and in Bethnal Green and Bow, but lost his attempt in 2021 to win Batley and Spen amid accusations of homophobia and dirty tricks.

Rochdale had its own minor controversy on Thursday, when Galloway was invited to speak at a community hustings with several other candidates except Danczuk, who was initially barred from entering the building, and later offered a two-minute slot which he refused. In the end, few other candidates showed up except Galloway and Lib Dem Iain Donaldson.

Danczuk seems to have spent more time than Galloway in villages such as Littleborough and Milnrow on the edge of the Pennines, but on Friday he was also trying to engage voters in Milkstone Road, handing out Reform UK leaflets. “I think Gaza is an issue for a vocal minority,” he said, adding that the main issue was illegal immigration with Rochdale taking “a disproportionate number of asylum seekers over the years”.

Back in the town centre, people at the Regal Moon were surprised to learn that the Wetherspoons pub was the official headquarters of the Monster Raving Loony party candidate. Some drinkers there raised immigration as an issue, although none considered Reform UK to be an option. “Danczuk has been here before and he didn’t do anything then,” said David Brierley, after complaining how much the town’s ethnic makeup has changed.

People here have not heard from Azhar Ali since Labour withdrew support for him, but his name will remain on the ballot paper, along with Guy Otten, the former Green candidate.

Related: An all-male byelection ballot in Rochdale? That’s hardly taking the Suffragette line | Catherine Bennett

“I reckon he’ll still get in,” said one drinker, referring to Ali. “People think that it will all settle down afterwards.”

Yet overall, few people here seem engaged with the byelection, and are closer to Margaret King’s disappointment with the candidates on offer from the main parties.

Between showers a queue has formed outside one of Rochdale’s soup kitchens, in Drake Street, and Muhammad Aziz has a shopping trolley of food collected from local businesses and families to give away, offering bread, muffins and cakes to people. “I do this every day,” he said. “Rochdale has a lot of deprivation and a lot of poverty. We’re trying to make Rochdale better again, help people back on their feet.” And how will he vote? “I’m a Conservative,” he says. “The Tories are the people who can bring the money from London.”

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