‘Forgotten corner of England’: The fight for Rochdale in ‘pantomime’ by-election

Nestled in the foothills of the Pennines, Rochdale is a town with a proud history.

It was once home to the world’s foremost cotton processing centres and is widely known as the birthplace of the modern co-operative movement.

But in recent years the town has been marred by child exploitation scandals, poverty and deprivation. According to Poverty Action’s Monitor report, 28% of children in Rochdale are still living in poverty.

“There are housing issues that we need to deal with, there are homeless issues we deal with and there are child protection issues we need to deal with”, one resident said.

The last thing this town wants is this dysfunctional by-election. But now that’s just one day away.

At the local Judo club, the committee secretary Dave feels like many others.

“It’s turning into a little bit of a pantomime.

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“I don’t think there’s a credible vote amongst the main candidates which leaves me in a bit of a quandary.”

Rochdale Judo
‘It’s turning into a little bit of a pantomime,’ says Dave

Labour has ditched its candidate, the Green candidate is still on the ballot paper but not campaigning after what he described as “regrettable” social media posts, the Conservative candidate was on holiday until a week before the by-election, and now there are in total 11 candidates in the race – many running as independents.

Once the frontrunners, Labour disowned their candidate Azhar Ali after he made alleged antisemitic remarks, revealed in a leaked recording.

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Labour withdraws support for Ali

Mr Ali now runs as an independent but his name will still be on the ballot paper by Labour as per electoral rules.

The rise of the independents

The bookies have their eye on the left-wing challenger George Galloway running for the Workers Party of Britain.

He is a former Labour MP turned experienced protester who has seized on by-elections before, this time seemingly trying to mobilise those disaffected with Labour over the party’s stance on Israel and Gaza.

He has condemned Azhar Ali’s comments and says some of the remarks are antisemitic. This is an allegation that has sometimes been levelled at him – something he completely denies.

I asked him whether he understood why the Jewish Labour Movement expressed a concern about the potential for his return to parliament.

“If I return to parliament, it will be because I’m elected to parliament, and if I’m elected to parliament, I’ll be saying the same things that I’ve been saying for more than 50 years on the issue of Israel and Palestine. Don’t expect me to change,” Mr Galloway said.

A Reform battle bus driving past George Galloway’s headquarters interrupts the interview halfway through.

A rival candidate at the helm bellows into a microphone: “Vote Reform UK to stop Galloway becoming an MP in the Rochdale by-election.”

That individual is another former Labour MP, Simon Danczuk, who was suspended from the party after sending explicit texts to a 17-year-old girl.

Simon Danczuk - Rochdale preview
Simon Danczuk from Reform UK

He has since left the party and is a candidate in this by-election under the banner of Reform UK.

“The choice is between me and Galloway and there is a real difference between what I would stand for, which is Rochdale, and what he would stand for, which is Gaza,” Mr Danczuk said.

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On the ballot paper

The Liberal Democrats used to be a major party here but the risk for them now is the potential to get lost amongst an array of characters.

Their candidate Iain Donaldson said: “What needs to be done here is about graft, it’s about getting the services up to standard and it’s about helping people.”

Conservatives say their campaign is one of localism, though the candidate Paul Ellison was on holiday last week and said he was too busy this week for an interview with Sky News.

At a lunch club for locals, run by the Heywood, Middleton and Rochdale Circle, Margaret tells me she’s not surprised about the spirit of the campaign in Rochdale and the circus that it’s become.

“We’re like the forgotten corner of England, we don’t count.”

All the candidates in Rochdale

  • Azhar Ali – Independent, formerly Labour
  • Paul Ellison – Conservative
  • Iain Donaldson – Liberal Democrats
  • Simon Danczuk – Reform UK
  • George Galloway – Workers Party of Britain
  • Reverend Mark Coleman – Independent
  • Michael Howarth – Independent
  • David Anthony Tully – Independent
  • William Howarth – Independent
  • Guy Otten – Green Party, on ballot paper but not campaigning
  • Ravin Rodent Subortna – Official Monster Raving Loony Party

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