Rochdale By-Election: Back Labour to beat George Galloway

Rochdale by-election 2024
Paul is backing Labour to win Rochdale

Paul Krishnamurty previews Thursday's by-election, which has already seen wild swings in the betting amid a chaotic chain of events, says you should back Labour to win...

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It cannot be stated often enough how fortunate we in the political betting community have been during this Parliament. Not just with the coups, leadership contests and constant speculation, but with the widest range of by-elections in living memory.

Seats that were once safe Labour or Tory have changed hands, at very different stages of the electoral cycles. We've seen Lib Dem upsets in their classic tradition and genuine bellwether marginals.

Now for something completely different.

Rochdale by-election - a race like no other

It is a good job we can bet on the Rochdale by-election, because some entertainment is urgently needed to lighten up a truly grim affair. I don't remember a race like it and few dare make a confident prediction.

Normally, Rochdale is a safe Labour seat. So safe that they won it by a 20% margin in the dog days of the 2019 general election. The by-election was called following the death of MP and former Greater Manchester Mayor Tony Lloyd. The party in clear second place last time were the Conservatives, whose support is around half now compared to their 2019 position - a trend bearing out in by-elections.

Galloway bid is a gamechanger

Historic numbers, however, are of dubious relevance now. Rather than a conventional Lab/Con affair, the race that has become a proxy for the Labour Party's internal divisions over the war in Gaza, and has descended into total chaos. Not unpredictably, George Galloway has targeted this Lancashire town under the Workers Party banner.

Labour opened up extremely short in the betting, and were matched down to just 1.021/50. Then Galloway jumped in, hoping to mobilise Muslim discontent over Labour's failure to condemn Israel, and the Workers Party odds crashed.

Labour have abandoned their candidate

Then a recording of Labour candidate Azhar Ali claiming Israel had deliberately allowed the 7 October attacks by Hamas to happen, in order to justify their invasion of Gaza.

He swiftly apologised and Keir Starmer stood by him. But further conspiratorial quotes about Israel soon surfaced and the leadership abandoned him. However it was too late for Labour to remove his name from the ballot, leaving no choice than to withdraw official support for the campaign.

Rochdale by-election Labour candidate and Burnham.jpg

Galloway then assumed favouritism and he's trading at 1.51/2 today. Much as his name is mud in the Westminster Village, the media can never get enough of the former-Labour MP.

I wonder how much of that gamble is due to a narrative pushed from faraway Westminster. They think back to his upsets under the Respect banner in Bethnal Green and Bow at the 2005 general election, and in Bradford West in a 2012 by-election. He also performed well in the 2021 Batley and Spen by-election, finishing third on 22%.

In each case, Galloway mobilised discontent with Labour among Muslim voters. The logic of the gamble is that Labour will suffer a similar backlash in Rochdale. In the absence of a strong Labour campaign, turnout seems sure to be low, advantaging any motivated campaign. Galloway's supporters will doubtless be that.

Without dismissing his chance on the above grounds, I am sceptical and think the market has over-reacted. Various reasons lead me to think Labour are the value bet.

Take on the favourite in Rochdale by-election

First, the media's assumptions are grotesque. Muslim voters are not a monolithic bloc and the idea that they will vote en masse for a blatant provocateur with form, over a foreign conflict about which Labour's position makes no material difference, seems simplistic and even racist.

Second, if some Muslim voters are indeed triggered by anti-Israel conspiracies, they may warm to Azhar Ali. The disowned Labour candidate may have inadvertently ruined Galloway's angle. Note too that Ali has a local reputation in his own right as leader of the Labour group on Lancashire County Council. One assumes Labour selected him on the basis of local pedigree.

Third, more likely is that local conditions will play at least as big a role. The focus group findings above reinforce that. Time and time again, we learn that ordinary voters are paying little or no attention to the Westminster theatre. Many will simply not know about the Ali scandal.

This dominated headlines and Twitter prior to the last round of by-elections, leading many to predict Labour underperformance. The reverse happened. My predictions were at the extreme upper end and still underestimated Labour's victory margin.

Labour share cuts across communities

Fourth, around 30% of Rochdale voters are Muslim. Let's assume that is the same share of the turnout and that Labour won two-thirds. That means they provided around 40% of Labour's tally in an easy win. Even if half switch to Galloway, that leaves plenty in hand for Labour.

Fifth, let's look a bit deeper into Galloway's record. The Bethnal Green and Bow situation was incomparable. That came in response to what had become a deeply unpopular invasion of a Muslim country by a Labour government. I'm sure the protest stretched much wider than merely Muslims.

The win in Bradford West was more impressive if following a very nasty campaign in which Galloway claimed to be a better Muslim than the Labour candidate, because he is teetotal. That constituency had a higher percentage of Muslim voters.

In Batley and Spen, though, Labour defied his bid against the odds. Galloway actually did well among some 2019 Tory voters - as an anti-woke Brexit supporter, which made some sense. Perhaps he will do so again and there will be plenty of Tory votes to squeeze here, but he will face stiffer competition this time from other parties.

Too big an ask for Reform and Lib Dems

The new right-wing party, Reform, are represented by former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who was kicked out after exchanging explicit messages with a 17 year-old girl. Surely he can't win at 55.054/1 but his new party are likely to take some of those defecting Tories and could well finish above them.

The Lib Dems are worth a mention too, because there is a historic liberal tradition in Rochdale and these parts of rural Lancashire. Again, expect them to pick up some defecting Tories, but winning from 7% last time seems many bridges too far.

Whilst I am loathe to make a confident call about such a bizarre and unpredictable race, my instinct is that the betting is all wrong and that countless excitable pundits will have egg on their faces come Friday morning.

Strong campaign or not, Gaza or not, Labour should win this seat and they should be odds-on favourites.

Back Labour @ 3.02/1

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