‘Galloway only won because Labour didn’t stand’: Keir Starmer vows to fight back in Rochdale at general election

1 March 2024, 12:27 | Updated: 1 March 2024, 12:28

Sir Keir Starmer hit out at George Galloway after Labour lost the Rochdale by-election
Sir Keir Starmer hit out at George Galloway after Labour lost the Rochdale by-election. Picture: Alamy/LBC

By Kit Heren

Sir Keir Starmer has said that George Galloway only won the Rochdale by-election because Labour didn't stand a candidate, as he vowed to fight back at the general election.

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The Labour leader said his party would field a "first-class candidate" in the general election, likely to be this autumn, after losing Thursday's by-election in the Greater Manchester constituency.

Labour had initially expected a straightforward path to victory in the vote, called after the death of incumbent Sir Tony Lloyd in January, but that changed when it emerged that its candidate, Azhar Ali, had pushed anti-Israel conspiracies.

Labour then withdrew its support Mr Ali, who came in fourth behind David Tully, an independent, and Conservative Paul Ellison.

Mr Ali losing Labour's backing cleared the path to victory for Mr Galloway, a former Labour MP, who described the by-election as a "poll on Gaza" as he appealed to Rochdale's Muslim population, about a third of the electorate.

Sir Keir told MPs on Friday: "Galloway only won because Labour didn't stand a candidate.

"I regret that we had to withdraw our candidate, I apologise to voters in Rochdale, but I took that decision - it was the right decision - and when I say I've changed the Labour Party, I mean it.

"Obviously, we will put a first class candidate, a unifier before the voters in Rochdale at the general election."

Read More: Former Labour MP George Galloway storms to victory in Rochdale by-election after chaotic campaign

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Mr Galloway has pledged to take a confrontational stance with Sir Keir over his Israel position.

Speaking to LBC after his victory, Mr Galloway said he would give the Labour leader a "piece of my mind" if he bumped into him in Parliament.

"I'd say [to Starmer] that the course of action you have embarked upon in your 'unqualified support' for Israel...is going to lead your party to disaster," he told LBC.

Meanwhile, immediately after winning the by-election, Mr Galloway said: "Keir Starmer, this for Gaza."

"Your abandonment of traditional Labour values, your embrace of neoliberal economics and imperialist politics abroad is going to be the death of your party and it richly deserves it."

George Galloway after winning the by-election
George Galloway after winning the by-election. Picture: Alamy

A Labour Party spokesperson said: “We deeply regret that the Labour party was unable to field a candidate in this by-election and apologise to the people of Rochdale. George Galloway only won because Labour did not stand.

“Rochdale deserved the chance to vote for an MP that would bring communities together and deliver for working people. George Galloway is only interested in stoking fear and division. As an MP he will be a damaging force in our communties and public life.

“The Labour party will quickly beging the process to select a new Labour candidate for the general election, and will be campaigning hard to deliver the representation and fresh start that Rochdale deserves."

Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer. Picture: Getty

Health minister Dame Andrea Leadsom told LBC News that MPs are “quite concerned” about the election of George Galloway and that he will have to be “very careful” about ‘stirring up division’.

She said: “The election of George Galloway is not going to help to enable people to take each other’s views with respect, so yes I think colleagues across the House are quite concerned about his election. Nevertheless it is a decision of the people of Rochdale.

"I certainly think that George Galloway will have to be very careful about the extent to which he seeks to stir up division in parliament and across the country because this is something that is of grave concern to all parliamentarians.”

New MP for Rochdale George Galloway
New MP for Rochdale George Galloway. Picture: Getty

In the run up the by-election, the Labour Party said it was 'too late' to remove Ali as a Labour candidate, but offered him no support and he likely would have had the whip immediately removed had he won.

Labour MPs, including shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, said they would have 'spoiled their ballot' rather than vote for Mr Ali.

Mr Galloway was first elected as an MP in 1987 in Glasgow, serving until 2005. He was expelled from Labour in 2003. He later served as an MP in Bethnal Green and Bow from 2005-2010, and then from 2012-2015 in Bradford West.