Jonathan Schofield stays up late to witness the most batshit crazy by-election in recent UK history

Deep State and the deeply not bothered

“Are you part of the Deep State?” said the grey-haired man in the Regal Moon, Rochdale town centre's Wetherspoons. I laughed and said, "That's the first time Manchester Confidential has ever been suspected of something like that. We might be part of the Deep Kitchen I suppose, a shadowy organisation secretly working to eat out more, I'll have to ask the publisher."

The man and his younger female companion had thrown me under the conspiracy theory bus because they were angry I'd questioned the motives of their hero, George Galloway, in the Rochdale by-election, especially his focusing on the terrible events in Gaza. The town has plenty of its own problems. Plenty.

The pair had travelled up from London to campaign for the flamboyant, fedora-wearing controversialist and political opportunist and you could see in their eyes the glazed look of true believers. He was their political messiah. 

A couple of days later I checked into Rochdale's brand new Hampton by Hilton Hotel for the election count. All was excitement. 

Or maybe not. 

The young receptionist said, "Yeah, it’s busy tonight. It’s that election thing.” He paused and continued: “I don’t know what it’s about to be honest.”

2024 03 01 Rochdale By Election 2
The BBC bagging space Image: Confidentials

The beating heart of windy politics

At Rochdale Leisure Centre, where the count was being held, there was a different mood. Here was the pulsing heart of live politics. You could feel it in the air. All the cameras and microphones in the North West where waiting to be scrambled into action. All the political journalists in the UK were gathered there buzzing with speculation.  

The BBC had annoyed a man in a hi-viz jacket who might have been one of the Leisure Centre staff. He pointed to a rectangle on the balcony overlooking the returning officer’s stage and said, “The BBC didn’t even ask. I hope the tape doesn’t leave a mark.” 

There was a rectangle of yellow hazard tape on the floor stating, alarmingly, ‘Achtung, Caution, Attention’ plus there was a ‘BBC News’ notice. A little later huddling in the Achtung cordon were the Beeb’s Chris Mason, Nick Watt, Peter Saull, Annabel Tiffin and others, heads bent together making plans. 

"Did you vote?” I asked hi-viz man who was maybe in his forties. "I've never bothered voting," he said, as we looked down on several tens of people for whom politics was everything.

In the media room Jon Craig of Sky News sighed. He then sighed again very loudly. It became a theme of the evening. He sighed his way across the building throughout the night. 

The major media crisis was there was no coffee and the result wouldn’t be announced for hours until after 2am. The vending machines had run out of paper cups and couldn’t operate without them. Claire Flett of the fabulous Rochdale Online laughed and said: “They can’t put more cups in the machine because that side of Rochdale Leisure Centre has been outsourced, it’s PFI.”  

Back in the media room people were checking the news, writing or preparing scripts, editing audio or just chatting. Suddenly one of the photographers farted loudly, twice. He didn’t acknowledge this with an “excuse me” or even a cheeky grin. The atmosphere thickened, literally. Somebody wondered if the man was making a comment on the crazy nature of this by-election and the current state of British politics. The photographer ignored him. 

Everybody backed away from that part of the room. 

2024 03 01 Rochdale By Election Media Room
The windy media room Image: Confidentials

A batshit by-election

Meanwhile Rochdale was backing away from the mainstream parties. George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain had claimed an overwhelming victory as the polling stations closed. A walk round the gym, where people were busily sorting the ballot papers for the candidates, showed Galloway had little paper mountains next to his name whereas the others had, at best, foothills.

His party were so confident they had won they distributed an A4 sheet stating how Galloway would be holding a ‘mass rally’ at his campaign headquarters after the count.

The main man wasn’t there yet, but his semi-trained American XL Bully of a sidekick Chris Williamson was shouting and ranting at any media who’d have him about changing the UK model of politics, and about Gaza and then some more about Gaza. He was up for a fight, a victory fight.  

Richard Tice of Reform UK was there to support his candidate Simon Danczuk who was also present. The Sky News crew led by sighing Jon Craig were just about to interview Tice when something went wrong with the live feed. Tice turned to be interviewed by Peter Saull of the BBC instead.  

Jon Craig told his team off: “We didn’t fucking connect. We lost a fucking guest because we didn’t fucking connect.” He then gave a mighty sigh.

Tice was saying how Danczuk’s campaign had been subject to death threats and racial abuse. He was justifably angry over this whatever you think of his politics and it should be called out and it did happen. That's plain wrong in a democracy. Let's hope Reform UK supporters live up to his lofty ideals. Tice was saying the campaign had been similar to "what you see in a failed state" and he was worried about the "implications for our democracy." Tice thought the result would be "irrelevant”. 

It was for his party, Danczuk came sixth with fewer than 2,000 votes.

Danczuk’s candidature was all part of the whole batshit nature of this by-election. He’d been a former Rochdale Labour MP (2010-2017) and left after several scandals. The official Labour candidate Azhar Ali had been chucked out of the Labour Party for anti-semitic comments after the ballot papers had been printed. This meant he had to remain as a prospective candidate. The Green candidate had been chucked out of his party over comments he’d made ‘historically’ on social media and as with Ali he was still a choice for voters. 

The Lib Dems couldn’t be arsed campaigning properly nor could the Tories as neither thought they had a hope in hell. They were right. 

Then there were any number of independents. None of the candidates were women. 

2024 03 01 Rochdale By Election 7
The American XL Bully of Galloway's party: Chris Williamson Image: Confidentials
2024 03 01 Rochdale By Election 8
Jon Craig of Sky News loses Richard Tice to Peter Saull of the BBC: Simon Danczuk and wife (in white jacket) look on Image: Confidentials

Galloway, the demagogue

This whole mess left the door swinging wide open for Galloway to run a divisive campaign targeted at the Muslim community of Rochdale, 30% of the population in this constituency, many of whom feel the pain of their co-religionists in Gaza acutely. The Workers Party of Britain pretended it was fighting this by-election for all Rochdalians, yet it was the votes of that section of the population they wanted and, while, of course many in the Muslim areas would have voted for backyard issues you don't put your name over the Palestinian flag as your election literature unless you're making a point. 

This was made clear when George and his hat appeared on stage after winning convincingly with more than 12,000 votes. His first words were “Keir Starmer, this is for Gaza”. Two main priorities then, attacking the Labour Party which kicked him out and a reaffirmation of his main electoral tactic. 

"I want to tell Mr Starmer that the plates have shifted tonight," he said, "This is going to spark a movement, a landslide, a shifting of the tectonic plates. In scores of parliamentary constituencies beginning here in the North West, in the West Midlands and London, Labour is on notice that they have lost the confidence of millions of their voters who loyally and traditionally voted for them, generation after generation.

“Every Muslim is bitterly angry at Keir Starmer and his Labour party but you would be very foolish if you did not realise that millions of other citizens of our country are too.”

What can’t be denied is the power of Galloway's oratory, or rather his demagogery. He’s got some good lines. The biggest laugh came with: "Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak are two cheeks of the same backside and they both got well and truly spanked tonight.”

Belatedly Galloway picked up on some Rochdalian bits and bobs, the lack of a maternity facility and A&E in the town’s health provision and also the dire state of Rochdale Football Club which faces extinction. 

It was hard to know if his heart was in it. In Parliament he can project the international aspect of his views. He'll bellow. As a party of one he can't affect national policy with regard to Rochdale or even the strategies or deficiencies in Rochdale Town Hall. 

It was right of him to mention David Tully, vehicle repair shop owner, and the surprise package of the night coming second with 6,638 votes. Tully stood as an independent and only joined the by-election race four weeks ago, claiming he didn’t care about politics just about the town. His was a remarkable result and he seemed a very honourable man.

Galloway's victory speech had been inevitably interrupted by the Just Stop Oil folks armed with their orange confetti. 

Almost all of Galloway's speech is in the link from Instagram below, if you're interested. 

A singular occasion

Galloway thought this was the first election in which the mainstream parties had not featured in the either of the top two positions, indeed, they had come nowhere near the top two positions. That needs fact checking but it was still a singular occasion in recent British politics. 

It was a coarsening of politics too, the whole process since Azhar Ali was thrown out of the Labour Party, had been more akin to the semi-lawless hustings of the eighteenth and nineteenth century before the advent of the secret ballot. It was angry politics. 

Poor Rochdale, my beloved home town, and seemingly the UK’s bellweather of trouble; from Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted women’ comment about Gillian Duffy, the scandal over a blind eye being turned to the vile Cyril Smith’s abuse of boys, the Asian grooming scandal through to little Awaab Ishak’s death after exposure to mould in a housing association flat. 

Yet it's also the birthplace of the Cooperative Movement in Britain and the town of one of the greatest Parliamentarians of all in John Bright. With the reopening in March of Rochdale Town Hall then it should develop a good tourism offer. It's not all bad, there's optimism as we showed in this article

But now the town has an MP who grovelled in front of the dictator Saddam Hussein and crawled on his knees when playing a pussy on Celebrity Big Brother. He’s the cat who’s got the cream.

Of course, Galloway may not last long. The general election is only months away and people will make different choices in Rochdale if there is an official Labour Party candidate next time around. 

This may be a blip but it still says something about the atomisation of British politics, or even the apathy about simply voting in a part of the world where people have sacrificed everything, historically, for suffrage. As Jon Craig might put it, "where's the fucking connection".

Still, there were many at Rochdale Leisure Centre for whom this signalled a refreshing break from the tug-of-war between the two main parties. There might be something in that. For Galloway’s truly fanatical followers it was much more, it was a breakthrough, the beginning of a national movement. Their faces shone in a state of heightened, delusional euphoria. Their political messiah had done it. They seemed to forget he'll be off elsewhere as soon as the situation changes. 

I stepped into the hotel lift down to breakfast a few short hours later and there was Jon Craig of Sky News. I nodded at him. Between floors two and one he gave a tremendous sigh.

In the dining room there were a large number of the Workers Party of Britain wearing grins wider than Galloway's fedora. Then George arrived and the grins widened again. He was hugged. He sat down and dived into his breakfast. He kept his hat on while eating. 

2024 03 01 Rochdale By Election 9
A moment of light relief: The Monster Raving Loony party arrives Image: Confidentials

How the voting went

George Galloway - Workers Party of Britain 12,335

David Tully - Independent 6,638

Paul Ellison - Conservative 3,731

Azhar Ali - Labour 2,402

Iain Donaldson - Liberal Democrat 2,164

Simon Danczuk - Reform UK 1,968

William Howarth - Independent 523

Mark Coleman - Independent 455

Guy Otten - Green 436

Michael Howarth - Independent 246

Ravin Rodent Subortna - Ofiicial Monster Raving Loony Party 209

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