George Galloway claims he's on course to win Rochdale by-election 'comfortably' following divisive contest in which he put pro-Palestinian stance at the heart of his campaign - while Labour disowned candidate over 'anti-Semitism' storm
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George Galloway’s allies are claiming he will ‘comfortably’ win the Rochdale by-election after one of the most divisive and controversial contests in recent history.

Local voters have been choosing a new MP to replace the late Sir Tony Lloyd following the death of the veteran Labour politician at the age of 73 last month.

The contest to replace Sir Tony has been marred by raging tensions over Gaza, with claims of death threats, candidates wearing stab vests, and vandalism.

Mr Galloway, the ex-Labour MP and Celebrity Big Brother contestant who fought a hardline pro-Palestinian campaign, is the bookies’ favourite to win.

Labour’s bid to retain the seat imploded when they had to ditch support for local councillor Azhar Ali as their official candidate following an anti-Semitism storm.

After local voters attended polling stations between 7am and 10pm on Thursday, vote-counting is now underway with a result expected around 3am on Friday.

There was a turnout of 39.7 per cent of voters in Rochdale.

George Galloway, the ex-Labour MP and Celebrity Big Brother contestant, pictured voting in Rochdale on Thursday

George Galloway, the ex-Labour MP and Celebrity Big Brother contestant, pictured voting in Rochdale on Thursday

Votes are taken out of a ballot box for counting during the Rochdale by-election, which has been one of the most divisive and controversial by-election contests in recent history

Votes are taken out of a ballot box for counting during the Rochdale by-election, which has been one of the most divisive and controversial by-election contests in recent history

Votes are verified ahead of the start of the vote counting. Polling stations were open between 7am and 10pm on Thursday, with a result expected around 3am on Friday

Votes are verified ahead of the start of the vote counting. Polling stations were open between 7am and 10pm on Thursday, with a result expected around 3am on Friday

Mr Galloway, who has fought a hardline pro-Palestinian campaign, is the bookies' favourite to win

Mr Galloway, who has fought a hardline pro-Palestinian campaign, is the bookies’ favourite to win

Simon Danczuk, the Reform UK candidate, is another ex-Labour MP looking for a way back into Parliament having previously been Rochdale's MP between 2010 and 2017

Simon Danczuk, the Reform UK candidate, is another ex-Labour MP looking for a way back into Parliament having previously been Rochdale’s MP between 2010 and 2017

Labour's bid to retain the seat imploded when they had to ditch support for local councillor Azhar Ali as their official candidate following an anti-Semitism storm

Labour’s bid to retain the seat imploded when they had to ditch support for local councillor Azhar Ali as their official candidate following an anti-Semitism storm

Ahead of the result being declared, supporters of Mr Galloway predicted success for their candidate.

Chris Williamson, a former Labour MP and now deputy leader of Mr Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain, told Sky News: ‘We believe that we’ve won comfortably today and it really will, I think, send shockwaves through the Palace of Westminster.

‘But it will also, I think, give hope to tens of thousands, if not millions of people in the country who are looking for a genuine alternative, because our democracy has been stolen from us.

‘The Labour Party and the Conservative Party are effectively often the same thing.’

He added that a victory for Mr Galloway represented ‘a total rejection of mainstream party politics’.

James Giles, campaign manager for Mr Galloway, said: ‘It is going better than our wildest hopes. George will win here by a fair margin.’

A victory rally is planned by Galloway supporters at their campaign HQ, a Suzuki car dealership, in the town following the declaration.

Independent candidate William Howarth said votes were piling up for Mr Galloway and another independent candidate, local businessman, David Tully.

Simon Danczuk, the Reform UK candidate, is another ex-Labour MP looking for a way back into Parliament having previously been Rochdale’s MP between 2010 and 2017.

He quit Labour almost seven years ago amid a ‘sexting’ scandal, when he was alleged to have sent explicit messages to a teenager.

Reform leader Richard Tice conceded that Mr Danczuk’s bid in Rochdale had failed, telling Sky News: ‘There’s no question Mr Galloway has won this election by what looks like a considerable margin. Everyone else, frankly, is also rans.’

Mr Tice bemoaned how ‘menacing behaviour’ had ‘been a feature of this entire campaign’ including ‘outside polling stations’ on Thursday.

There had been thoughts that Mr Ali might go on to win the contest, after Labour discarded him too late to remove him from ballot paper.

He told ITV News on Thursday: ‘I’m still on the ballot paper, I’ve been campaigning for the last few weeks and I’m hoping for a positive result.’

Asked whether he would take up his seat in the House of Commons if he won the by-election, Mr Ali replied: ‘Absolutely.’

Whatever the result it won’t be a proud moment for Sir Keir, with Labour frontbenchers embarrassed they could not recommend any candidate in a normally safe seat.

There had also been controversy around Green candidate Guy Otten, who had his party’s support withdrawn over comments he made on Twitter.

But, like Mr Ali, his name still appeared on ballot papers when locals went to polling stations on Thursday.

Labour’s campaign fell apart after a recording surfaced of Mr Ali suggesting Israel ‘deliberately allowed’ Hamas terror attacks on October 7 as a pretext to invade Gaza.

Shadow cabinet members Lisa Nandy and Anneliese Dodds both campaigned for him before Labour eventually withdrew support amid growing criticism.

The action against Mr Ali also followed the emergence of a fuller recording in which he was heard commenting on ‘people in the media from certain Jewish quarters’.

Mr Ali subsequently apologised ‘to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments’.

After he was ditched by Labour, local voters were urged to ‘teach Keir Starmer a lesson’ by continuing to support Mr Ali.

Pro-Palestinian backers of Mr Ali were reported to be sharing anti-Starmer posters on WhatsApp in a bid to drum up votes.

Alongside an image of Mr Ali, one read: ‘Sacked by Starmer for speaking on Palestine. It’s time to teach Starmer a lesson in Rochdale. Vote Azhar Ali.’

Another depicted Sir Keir as a clown and dubbed the Labour leader as ‘anti Palestine Starmer’, in comparison to Mr Ali as ‘a stong voice for Palestine’.

Mr Galloway’s campaign was also heavy on the Palestinian cause and Gaza, an issue close to the heart of many of Rochdale’s Muslim population.

His campaign believes 15,000 votes are enough to win most by-elections and Rochdale has a 30,000-strong Asian community.

There have been incidents of his campaign posters being torn down.

Vote counting starts after polls close in Rochdale in a contest to elect a new MP to replace the late Sir Tony Lloyd following his death at the age of 73 last month

Vote counting starts after polls close in Rochdale in a contest to elect a new MP to replace the late Sir Tony Lloyd following his death at the age of 73 last month

A police officer stands next to an entrance to a polling station during voting in the Rochdale by-election

A police officer stands next to an entrance to a polling station during voting in the Rochdale by-election

Mr Danczuk, who believes the poll is a two-horse race between him and Mr Galloway, says his campaign is based on disaffection with mainstream parties.

He claims his rival Mr Galloway’s campaign has been divisive and he would be the ‘MP for Gaza’, not Rochdale.

Mr Danczuk reported being the subject of a death threat with police reportedly making an arrest.

The Tories are not likely to enjoy much success in Rochdale, with the Greater Manchester constituency not having had a Conservative MP since the 1950s.

Tory ex-Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick on Thursday hit out at how the Rochdale contest had become known as the ‘Gaza by-election’.

He criticised some candidates for being ‘more interested in a conflict they have no influence over than improving the lives of local people’, adding: ‘Shameful.’

Rochdale, which is one of the most deprived in England and voted 60 per cent in favour of Brexit, has also been the subject of Asian grooming gang scandals.

A major report in January concluded that young girls were left ‘at the mercy’ of paedophiles due to failings by senior police and council bosses.

Billy Howarth, a local man, is involved in the group Parents Against Grooming UK and stood at the by-election as an independent.

Mr Howarth said he had taken to wearing a stab-vest while campaigning, such are tensions in the town.

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