March 1, 2024 - 7:13am

And so Rochdale was handed the result no one in mainstream politics wanted: the election of George Galloway. After securing a majority of more than 6,000, he will return to Parliament on Monday after more than a nine-year absence.

For Labour, this will feel like a catastrophe made out of a cakewalk. Rochdale should have been comfortable for them, but poor timing and poor decisions fumbled it. They could hardly help that the election, in a seat with a large Muslim population, came during the party’s internal debates about Starmer’s approach to Israel — but choosing a candidate they then had to un-endorse was a clear cock-up.

The result is a shock for Starmer and a sign of a new emerging weakness. Galloway pledged to run more candidates for his Workers Party in the general election, likely targeting more seats with significant Muslim votes. He wants to exploit Labour’s division in Gaza, and harness disillusionment on the Left with the party’s stance. It’s unclear whether he can build the momentum required, but it will be a new worry for a bunch of Labour MPs who were expecting to coast to victory.

Galloway’s return will also spread worry across the political spectrum. After all, he has always been a turbulent force. He was expelled from Labour for calling on British troops to mutiny in Iraq, before becoming a serial exploiter of tense by-elections. Since then he has advocated on behalf of the Iranian government, Bashar Al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. In 2009, he even appeared in public handing wads of cash to Hamas (before it was proscribed). Once again he has seized a platform, much to the chagrin of the political establishment.

More than that, however, his victory shows the possible benefits of harnessing divisions and community blocs. Rochdale is a classic northern industrial town, where poverty and social issues are rife. Yet the defining issue in this by-election was a foreign policy matter Britain is only tangentially involved in. Galloway’s campaign was based on his long-standing criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian cause. His success, again, gives succour to the idea that new factions are emerging in British politics and can be swayed by community tensions.

Above all, Rochdale is a triumph for a sort of anti-politics. Galloway will go back to Westminster as a lone, radical voice pursuing his pet agenda of attacking Israel and many of Britain’s other allies. In the meantime, it seems likely he will serve the people of Rochdale poorly: last time he was an MP, the only representatives with worse attendance records were abstentionist Sinn Fein’s politicians and an MP who’d died.

Even so, it is Labour that has been left most red-faced. Starmer now faces very real questions about how his party machine ended up in such a mess. The broad legacy, however, is that once again Galloway has shown that the worst instincts in politics can be played successfully. And here, perhaps Starmer’s only silver lining is that every party must now consider how to curb them.

John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.