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News From Across the Pond: Gaza War Is Wrecking British Politics

There was yet another by-election in the United Kingdom this week. Because it appeared to be a relatively minor affair, we arranged for just one report from our British correspondents, rather than a preview and a wrap-up. As it turns out, however, there is rather more significance to the election than expected. Here's reader A.B. from Lichfield, England, UK with the story:

This was originally going to be a brief report on the February 29 parliamentary by-election in Rochdale, a former mill town in Greater Manchester. The chaotic election has been deeply impacted by the Gaza War, making an otherwise mundane election in an ostensibly safe Labour seat of potential interest to a North American political audience (and besides, by an odd coincidence work had taken me to Manchester on polling day). Events over the last two weeks have shown that the Gaza War is having a far broader impact on British politics, and Rochdale now has to be given a bit more context.

The Rochdale by-election was called after the death of popular Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd, a giant of the Manchester political scene. Subsequent events turned this into one of the most chaotic by-elections in recent British political history. Labour candidate Azir Ali was recorded stating that Israel had deliberately allowed the October 7 Hamas attack to go ahead so they could have "the green light to do whatever they bloody want" in Gaza. Ali survived that after apologizing, but Labour then withdrew support for their candidate within 24 hours of the apology after a further recording emerged of the candidate stating that Labour's suspension of a left-wing MP was driven by "people in the media from certain Jewish quarters." Not to be left out, the Green Party then withdrew support for their candidate after it was found that he had previously made Islamophobic comments over the Quran and Gaza on the site previously known as Twitter; over 20% of the population in central Rochdale is Muslim, so this was obviously a problem. In both cases, the parties only withdrew support for their candidates after ballot papers had been printed, so this had no impact on how party affiliations were listed on the ballot.

While Azir Ali might still have been elected—much to the embarrassment of his former party—the other two main candidates for the seat had their own challenges. Simon Danczuk was running for the right-wing populist Reform UK party. Danczuk was the Labour MP for the seat from 2010 to 2017, building a reputation as a fierce critic of child sexual abuse (which, unfortunately, has been a significant issue in Rochdale over the last 20 years). It was regrettable, then, that he was suspended from the Labour Party in 2015 and dropped as their candidate after he was caught sending explicit text messages to an underage teenager. Apropos of nothing in particular, the current Mrs. Danczuk—the third lucky holder of that title—was half her husband's age when they married in 2023. But at least she's Rwandan, thereby conclusively proving to right-wing Reform UK supporters that their party can't possibly be racist.

The final serious candidate was George Galloway, a former Labour MP who's built himself something of a career running in seats with strong Muslim minorities—occasionally winning as a minor party candidate—while positioning himself as the voice of disaffected British Islam, which is quite the feat for a 69-year-old white Scot from Dundee. While many on the left of politics have traditionally been critical of Western military action in Iraq and Israel's current attack on Gaza, Galloway has arguably often taken this to extremes, with his long-term support of Saddam Hussein drawing particular criticism in the past. More recently, on Feb. 14, 2022, Galloway made a point of gloating on Twitter that he was right that Russia would never invade Ukraine, that he'd been right "again," and that everyone who was wrong about this should "show some humility." Russia invaded on the 24th. Strangely, Galloway hasn't deleted the tweet.

So the three most likely winners in Rochdale were a candidate disowned by the Labour Party over antisemitism, a right-wing populist who was expelled from the Labour Party for sexting a 17 year old, and a left-wing populist notorious for cynically targeting disaffected Muslim voters and who was expelled from the Labour Party for his support of Saddam. It was quite the choice.

While all of this has been going on in Rochdale, Gaza has also had an impact on national politics. Last week, Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsey Hoyle managed to get himself into a mess over a Scottish National Party motion to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. This is far too deep in the weeds—what (V) & (Z) would call "inside baseball"—to fully outline here. It's enough to note that Hoyle's mishandling of the issue, which he claims was driven by concerns for the safety of MPs, led to chaotic scenes in Parliament as the SNP called for the speaker's resignation and government MPs walked out of the debate—a rare case of the Conservative Party and the SNP agreeing on something (to the slight discomfort of both).

Meanwhile, PM Rishi Sunak managed to create a mess of his own when former Conservative Party vice-chair Lee Anderson, who comes from what we might charitably call the party's "robust right," was suspended for stating in an interview with GB News (a channel trying very hard to position itself as the U.K. version of Fox News) that London Mayor Sadiq Khan is "controlled by Islamists" (Khan is a Muslim). Sunak and cabinet members refused to characterize Anderson's remarks as Islamophobic or racist, leading to a comical round of media interviews where senior government MPs confidently stated that Anderson had been suspended because his remarks were wrong, but were then unable to articulate why they were wrong. This has all rather undermined government attempts to attack Labour leader Keir Starmer (whose wife and children are Jewish) for being ineffective over tackling antisemitism on the left. Anderson is meanwhile not so secretly considering defecting to the absolutely-not-at-all-in-any-way-racist Reform UK; if he does, he would become that party's first MP.

There's no way of describing any of this as "entertaining" without making light of the tragic events in Gaza and Israel. It's certainly been different; maybe "depressing" would be a better word.

And the result in Rochdale? I awakened Friday to discover that Galloway won with nearly 40% of the vote, specifically stating "this is for Gaza" in his (much-heckled) victory speech. This will be taken as expressing unhappiness with the Labour leadership's position on Gaza and decision to drop its local candidate for antisemitism, mirroring debates in the United States where Arab-Americans and some left-of-center voters are unhappy with Biden's approach to the conflict. But where the people of Dearborn, Michigan, could only vote "unaffiliated" in the recent Michigan Democratic primary, a plurality of voters in Rochdale have decided to issue their protest by supporting a controversial serial opportunist representing the supposed "Workers Party of Great Britain" who was expelled from his first party for supporting Saddam Hussein. The only real consolation is that the sexting Simon Danczuk ended up finishing sixth. Under the circumstances, it's perhaps a surprise that the Official Monster Raving Loony Party candidate could only finish 11th (and last).

Meanwhile, correspondent S.T. in Worcestershire, England, UK adds this:

Delving slightly deeper into the Rochdale result, this by-election possibly ranks as the largest protest vote in decades. Not only did "Gorgeous George" win, but a local businessman standing as an independent came second with 21% of the vote. Meanwhile, the result was disaster for BOTH Labour and Conservatives. Between them, they received just 19.7% of the vote. A collapse in Labour's vote was to be expected given the circumstances surrounding their original candidate, but a fall of 44% was definitely at the top end of expectations, whilst the Conservative vote also fell by 19%. Clearly there is something of an "enthusiasm gap" when the two largest U.K. parties see their combined vote fall by 63%. I am hopeless at predicting results but I think this indicates that the coming U.K. general election will see a very weak turnout.

And there is also the performance of Reform to note. Various right-wing elements of the U.K. media and certain Conservative MPs have been talking up the "threat" of Reform as a lever to make Sunak adopt the policies they favor. Granted that Reform (for some reason only known to themselves) chose a flawed candidate in Simon Danczuk, but even so a fall in their vote compared to the 2019 election was very unexpected. They trailed in at 6%. Their current leader (at least, while Nigel Farage is pursuing his broadcasting career), Richard Tice, put the result down to the difficulty of running three by-election campaigns within a month with limited resources. This raises the obvious question: How can you run a general election campaign, which is going to involve far more than three seats? If the election in Rochdale does have a lasting legacy, it might be the bursting of the Reform bubble.

Thanks to both of you! (Z)

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