Labour’s loss in the Rochdale by-election to George Galloway, amidst candidate withdrawals and controversy, has had an impact on Muslim voter support. Galloway’s emphasis on Gaza raises concerns about Labour’s relationship with Muslim voters, sending a message to Keir Starmer.

T he Rochdale by-election should have been a straightforward win for Labour. The late Sir Tony Lloyd served as a Labour member since 2017, with a majority of nearly 10,000. And yet the contest, triggered by Lloyd’s death in January, descended into chaos and controversy.

Now, nine years after his most recent term in parliament, the controversial former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway will represent the seat for his own Workers’ Party of Britain.

In an all-male list of candidates, both the Labour Party and the Green Party withdrew support for their candidates following allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia, respectively. On the ballot paper, Azhar Ali still appeared as the Labour candidate and Guy Otten as Green because it was too late to make any changes.

Labour’s decision to withdraw its support for Ali came after leaked recordings revealed him saying that the Israeli government knew in advance about the attacks by Hamas on October 7 2023, and that they “deliberately took the security off [to allow] that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want.”

By dropping Ali, Labour’s standing among Muslim voters, in Rochdale and beyond, took another battering. Since the start of the war in Gaza, Labour’s position on the conflict has been seen as too lenient towards Israel by many Muslim voters and Labour Muslim politicians. Across the country, more than 60 Labour councillors have resigned in protest. In November 2023, 56 Labour MPs defied the party leadership to back the SNP’s call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

The Rochdale by-election was the first where the issue of Gaza was explicitly raised on the campaign trail. Clearly, many of the area’s Muslim voters (and others) used this chance to express their anger. And Galloway, who stood on a platform of “For Rochdale. For Gaza”, did too.

Muslims make up 30% of Rochdale’s population. It is therefore unsurprising that Galloway decided to court this constituency in his bid to return as an MP. He successfully won elections in east London and Bradford, both of which have significant Muslim South Asian electorates, and has long advocated for the Palestinian cause.

In 2009, he led the Viva Palestina convoy that travelled to Gaza to provide humanitarian aid during the blockade of the strip. A later investigation by the Charity Commission found “little if any evidence that humanitarian aid was distributed to those in need” by Viva Palestina, although Galloway always disputed the inquiry’s findings.

— New MP, George Galloway.

Labour and the ‘Muslim vote’

There is no such thing as a cohesive “Muslim vote” in the UK. For decades, Labour remained the party of choice for many British Muslims, but this had more to do with other factors, including class and race. The Muslim Council of Britain has, for many years, encouraged Muslims to vote and be part of the political process, but does not back particular candidates or parties.

Within Muslim communities, there is often a political divide between generations. Research has revealed widespread disillusionment with electoral politics, among young Muslims in the UK.

Despite this, many remain politically engaged outside of formal elections, for example through local community organisations, and calling for substantive representation which addresses mainstream and often national political issues. The older generation, in contrast, is seen as prioritising local issues and representation much more closely tied to kinship and ethnic identity.

Despite these caveats about the absence of a Muslim vote, history shows that Muslims will use the ballot box to send messages on both domestic and foreign policy issues. This occurred most famously in the 2005 general election, when the Muslim protest vote against the Iraq war helped to swing several constituencies against Labour. Many Labour MPs, including the then foreign secretary Jack Straw, had to fight tooth and nail to retain supposedly “safe” seats.

The major upset in that election was George Galloway winning the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow in east London at the expense of Labour’s Oona King, who voted in favour of UK involvement in the Iraq war. Galloway managed to overturn King’s majority of 10,057 by campaigning on an anti-war stance. Nearly two decades later, Galloway has used another war in a different constituency with a significant Muslim population to do the same.

Looking to the general election

In his acceptance speech, Galloway warned Starmer: “This is for Gaza. And you will pay a high price, in enabling, encouraging and covering for, the catastrophe presently going on in occupied Palestine in the Gaza Strip.” In classic Galloway oratory, he declared “all the plates have shifted tonight”, and that Labour has “lost the confidence of millions of their voters.”

Concern about Labour losing votes from its Muslim electors should not be overstated. Opinion polls still record the party’s support as high – and during a general election voters are less likely to vote on a single issue.

Still, Labour will now fear losing ground to independent candidates standing in constituencies with significant numbers of Muslim voters, especially in seats where MPs abstained from or voted against the SNP motion for a ceasefire in Gaza in November 2023.

For years, Labour has taken the support of Muslim voters for granted. Galloway’s win will certainly put pressure on Starmer and the Labour Party to take voters’ concerns about Gaza seriously. The result in Rochdale may not indicate more electoral consequences for the party, but it does suggest moral ones.

PMP Magazine


▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 3 March 2024. | The authors write in a personal capacity.
Cover: Flickr/Vince Millett. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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