George Galloway won't save Rochdale (Christopher Furlong/Getty)

February 29, 2024   6 mins

Rochdale is a terrible place to live. I spent time there in the late Nineties reporting on the grooming gangs and found a toxic mix of self-serving politicians, poor policing, grinding hardship and failing social services. The borough has one of the highest child poverty rates in the whole of the UK, and the council was variously described as “a disgrace” and “not fit for purpose” by unimpressed residents.

It’s bleak here. The main shopping area, Yorkshire Street, is a sad parade of charity shops, discount stores, and closed-down businesses. Each time I go, I see more and more homeless people on the street. And the stories of poverty and neglect are heart-breaking. In 2020, a toddler died from a respiratory condition caused by mould in the housing association property he lived in. Shockingly, his death changed nothing: it’s still a widespread problem, almost four years on.

Steeped in political scandal and poverty as it is, things could be about to get a whole lot worse. The result of today’s contentious by-election could mean the infamous constituency could end up represented in Parliament by a clown.

Once the pride of industrial Britain, the town was soiled redeemably by “Mr Rochdale” for decades. Real name Cyril Smith, he became a Labour councillor in 1952 at the age of 23, and was Rochdale’s MP from 1972 until he retired from Parliament in 1992. He managed to sustain this lengthy term in office despite multiple allegations of profoundly inappropriate behaviour. In total, eight men alleged that Smith had indecently assaulted them as teenagers in the Sixties; six of them were living at a residential establishment for boys named Cambridge House Hostel, which Smith had been involved in setting up.

When the Director of Public Prosecutions was informed in 1970, the advice was not to prosecute. That advice was reviewed by the Crown Prosecution Service in 1998 and 1999, when two further complainants were identified. Yet neither review led to Smith being charged. He was knighted in 1988, and died in 2010.

It’s only in the years since his death that the extent of his shocking behaviour has been revealed. Among other things, it transpired that in his spare time, Smith had been taking money from — and being handed shares in — a local asbestos firm in return for delivering speeches in parliament minimising its dangers. Then, as part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), published in 2022, Lord David Steel stated that Smith had told him that media reports of his abuse of children were true. Yet Steel had allowed Smith to continue in office until he stepped down in 1992. The police, I’m told, were in his pocket. The IICSA report stated that this was not the case, but it’s easy to be sceptical when you’re even slightly familiar with his corruption.

Smith’s moral depravity cast a dark shadow across Rochdale where the authorities have a long history of turning a blind eye to abuse of the vulnerable. In the Smith Street public toilets scandal, for example, boys as young as primary school age were sexually abused by men for the price of an ice lolly in full view of the Social Services Department. The Child Protection Manager later described how she would regularly notice boys sitting on the walls and being beckoned by men to follow them inside. It was obvious to her and other staff who witnessed it that sexual abuse was happening. And in March 1989, representatives from the police, social services and schools met to discuss what was happening to a group of children aged 10-14 when they gathered daily at a local restaurant named “Tasty Bites”, when they should have been at school. Of the 12 children identified, five were in the care of Rochdale and a number were being paid for sex.

As the IICSA report made clear,  allegations of sexual assault were simply not taken seriously by those in authority — a culture that infected the council for years, and endured right up to the moment the grooming gang scandal that also took place in Tasty Bites was finally laid bare in 2012. Dozens of vulnerable girls — some as young as 14 — had been plied with alcohol and cannabis, threatened with violence, and passed around man after man for sex, while the authorities ignored their pleas for help. The ringleader was found guilty of 30 counts of rape. A string of inquiries followed, concluding that those in authority “lacked human compassion” and were “inexcusably slow” in dealing with the victims — who were seen as making “life choices”, rather than suffering.

Galloway knows his audience. Rochdale is 19% ethnically Asian, and 13.9% Muslim.

There’s little doubt that Smith’s 20-year reign set in stone the culture of corruption, lethargy and abject failure of its statutory services that lingers. To this day, Rochdale is offered a dire choice of politicians. It’s difficult to believe that many voters will be inspired to turn out to vote for any of them. It is a battle between an ultra-macho, all-male list of prospective MPs, fought along Israeli-Palestinian lines, rather than between political parties. Amid the chaotic run-up, the Labour and Green parties dropped their candidates; not one woman is standing.

It’s an unedifying list of characters and Azhar Ali, is pretty representative of the calibre: a Labour Councillor who trotted out antisemitic conspiracy theories at a public meeting: he’s now out of the party, yet still standing. George Galloway, also accused in the past of antisemitism, is also standing — and is the favourite to win. He wants to “make Rochdale great again” — which makes you wonder when exactly he’s referring to. Standing for the Workers Party for Britain, he claims that he would save Rochdale AFC, and reopen the market. He also has the dubious honour of being endorsed by Nick Griffin, head of the British National Party. (Galloway rejected the endorsement.)

Galloway knows his audience. Rochdale is 19% ethnically Asian, and 13.9% Muslim — one of the biggest communities in the country — and appealing to ethnically Asian Muslims has always served the Scottish Catholic politician very well. When he won Bradford West from Labour in 2012 by a massive majority, he announced his victory through a megaphone, shouting, “All praise to Allah!” During that by-election campaign, Galloway produced a leaflet reading:

“I’m a better Pakistani than [Imran Hussain, the Labour candidate] will ever be. God knows who’s a Muslim and who is not. And a man that’s never out of the pub shouldn’t be going around telling people you should vote for him because he’s a Muslim.”

His success was short-lived: he lost the seat in 2015, to Naseem (Naz) Shah, a local of Pakistani Muslim origin. During his campaign he repeatedly insinuated that Shah was pro-Israel, despite the fact that she had regularly and publicly expressed support for Gaza and Palestine. I accompanied Shah on her campaign trail back then, and was told by a number of Pakistani Muslim voters that they were sick of Galloway posturing while doing little for the community. “He expects us to vote the way the men do,” one Muslim woman told me, “so ignores the women.” Undeterred by his failure in Bradford, he has set his sights on Rochdale.

Also standing is Guy Otten, originally a Green Party candidate who was disowned when old social media posts (from 2013, 2014 and 2015) cast him in a questionable light. In one, he wrote: “The Koran is full of war, slaughter, rape and pillage with genocide and slavery as well. It’s not fit for the 21st century.” In other words, as well as the two candidates accused of antisemitism, there’s one who’s been accused on anti-Muslim prejudice.

And then, last but not least, there is Simon Danczuk, the disgraced former Labour MP for Rochdale. Now running for Reform UK (formerly the Brexit Party), Danczuk launched his campaign by taking aim at his old party with a “work not woke” slogan. He has now pivoted to describing himself as the only alternative to Galloway, with a slightly less catchy motto: “Rochdale not Gaza.” In other words, he is also trying to capitalise on the tensions in the town over race, religion and ethnicity. Whether he has a vision for addressing poverty is less certain.

It is worth mentioning here why, exactly, Danczuk was kicked out of Labour. In March 2015 he made headlines because he appeared to have liked hardcore pornography on Twitter. He blamed an iPhone glitch, but admitted to having used porn, saying “I think we should not be too sanctimonious about this”. (Owen Jones wrote a column in defence of Danczuk, for the Guardian.) Then, in December that year, Danczuk was suspended. He had sexted 17-year-old Sophena Houlihan saying: “You want me to spank you?” and “God I’m horny!” Houlihan says she was bombarded with explicit messages for a month after asking him for a summer job in his Rochdale constituency office.

This candidate list is a tragedy. No wonder the people of Rochdale have lost faith in politics. Perhaps most disappointing is Labour’s failure: the party should have been a first choice for the majority of voters in a town that has been so abandoned by the bourgeoisie. Instead, its best hope is to become a case study that helps Labour understand why so many working-class northerners are turning their backs on the party that is supposed to represent them. The disenfranchised, impoverished people of Rochdale embody the negative consequences of exactly the kind of poverty and marginalisation that Labour romanticises or makes use of. But its residents are too angry, too battered to spark a revolution. In perhaps an attempt at protest, 60% of the town voted for Brexit in 2016.

What this means for the future of politics is as bleak as it is worrying. At times like this, when the downtrodden can neither take another kicking nor find the strength to get up from the ground and carry on, it is easy to get sucked into a world in which any enemy of an enemy is a friend. Rochdale, having been abused and abandoned by the state, exemplifies how and why dangerous, disgraceful politicians get elected. The beleaguered town deserves far better than any of the men currently vying to be its MP. Whoever wins this election, Rochdale will lose.

Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.