George Galloway probably has only a few months to make a mark - but is likely to cause a headache for Keir Starmer

1 March 2024, 13:56 | Updated: 1 March 2024, 13:57

George Galloway
George Galloway. Picture: Alamy
Henry Riley

By Henry Riley

In 20 years time, if you tell the tale of the Rochdale by-election, I’m confident people simply would not believe it.

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Just one minute after the polls had closed I was told by George Galloway's campaign manager that he was virtually declaring victory - and just six hours later at 4am we were huddled in a Suzuki car dealership in Rochdale as the Workers Party of Britain candidate hosted a victory rally.

Easily the most bizarre campaign in modern political history culminated in one of the most divisive figures in British politics once again being given the right to sit on the House of Commons’ green benches.

This is now the fourth constituency Mr Galloway has represented. The self-styled showman has been a fringe figure for some time, but in recent years has been close to an irrelevance after poor showings in the London Mayoral election, and the Batley and Spen by-election.

His political obituary was well and truly written - and the thought of returning to Parliament is unlikely to have crossed the minds of even his most loyal supporters.

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

Read more: 'This is for Gaza': George Galloway's warning shot to Keir Starmer and Labour after winning Rochdale by-election

Yet, fast forward nine years after he lost his seat at the 2015 general election - George Galloway is back.

Never mind being a headache for Sir Keir Starmer - with his loud, distinct and abrasive style of oratory - he’s bound to ruffle a great many more feathers in the days, weeks and months to come.

The urge for Mr Galloway to cause a scene and dominate headlines will be exacerbated by the fact that he is seemingly merely a temporary MP.

Realistically he only has six-eight months to make his mark before a looming general election, where he is likely to lose his seat.

The ‘perfect storm’ he enjoyed during this campaign (of conflict in the Middle East, coupled with abysmal polling for the Conservatives, and suspended candidates from both the Green Party and Labour) is unlikely to repeat itself.

Though when I challenged Mr Galloway on that shortly after his victory, in the glamorous Rochdale Leisure Centre, he compared himself to Cristiano Ronaldo - claiming that he was offering himself to Rochdalians for the next five years on a short-term deal.

So bizarre was the campaign that seemingly no one batted an eyelid when Ravin Rodent Subortna, or Nick The Flying Brick from the Official Monster Raving Loony Party entered the leisure centre hall.

Instead of providing light relief, people were desperately seeking normality.

One individual who did - rightly - steal some of the limelight was David Tully, an extremely impressive independent candidate.

Mr Tully, a local car repair centre owner, who scored an impressive 6,000 votes after an effective grassroots campaign.

A Rochdale season ticket holder, he persuaded family and friends to help him deliver over 40,000 leaflets in the weeks of the by election. “He owes me a pint, I’m bloody knackered” one of his mates told me.

My Westminster bubble was burst at one point when I asked one member of his campaign for the turnout. "I don’t do politics and have no idea what you mean," he told me.

Usually at a by-election campaign you have MPs, ministers and shadow ministers, all dominating the airwaves with the pre-rehearsed lines for each stage of the night. Rochdale had none of that, with Westminster choosing to sit this one out.

Elsewhere it was clearly a terrible night for Cllr Azhar Ali - the former Labour candidate who came fourth - while Simon Danczuk of Reform UK came a distant sixth - despite the fact he was the former MP for the town.

In truth the Rochdale by-election will likely end up being a pub quiz question, and a footnote in political history - but speaking with voters later that morning, they weren’t just uninterested in the process, they were infuriated by the whole debacle.

"It’s all a load of c*** and I don’t care," one woman told me. She said this was a sentiment shared by many locals - who simply want this sorry by-election behind them.

People in Rochdale feel left behind and ignored; however the only thing worse than that is what this by-election seemingly triggered.

It made people feel embarrassed and humiliated, and therefore even more apathetic and frustrated with politics.