On February 29, voters in the northern English town of Rochdale will elect a new member of parliament (MP). Caused by the death of the incumbent Labour Party MP, the by-election should not have posed too many problems for the United Kingdom’s official opposition. Labour’s campaigning has nevertheless been thrown into disarray following the emergence of a recording in which its candidate espoused conspiracy theories concerning Israel’s ongoing campaign against Hamas. The recording has prompted the party to withdraw support for its candidate without the option of naming an alternative.

Come polling day, the party that’s widely expected to form the UK’s next government will also face a familiar and irksome adversary. Standing in the way of a supposedly routine victory is George Galloway, a former Labour MP turned media figure and long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause. Galloway has been a thorn in Labour’s side since the 2005 General Election, after he won a previously safe London seat, a feat repeated in 2012 with a by-election victory in Yorkshire. In both constituencies, Galloway appealed to disenchanted Muslim voters to deliver Labour a bloody nose.

There’s a possibility that Galloway and his newly formed Workers Party could once again upset the odds. Like his previous victories, Rochdale is home to a sizeable Muslim community which, if opinion polling is to be believed, is railing against Labour over its stance on the Gaza conflict. According to a recent poll for the Labour Muslim Network, approximately 60 per cent of British Muslims would currently vote Labour. This is down on the 86 per cent canvassed in 2021 who voted for the party in the 2019 general election.

Gaza is emphatically at the heart of Galloway’s campaign for the Rochdale by-election. In a recent video posted on the Worker’s Party website, he calls on voters to send a message to Gazans displaced by Israeli attacks, as well as the ‘Conservative-Labour duopoly’ that stands for virtually the same political issues. The party’s manifesto also advocates a single state in which everybody born in Israel-Palestine lives in peace with equal rights.

Britain’s right-wing press and embattled Conservative government will undoubtedly capitalise on Labour’s failure to retain a relatively safe seat. Some Conservative MPs have even started to discuss how Gaza could influence the timing of a general election expected to take place later this year. Their musings reflect divisions within Labour over the Gaza crisis which have resulted in MPs resigning from senior positions and local politicians leaving the party.

It is hoped by increasingly nervous Conservative politicians and strategists that Labour’s differences over Gaza could divert protest votes to smaller political parties, particularly the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Galloway’s Workers Party. Splitting this vote may help the Conservatives retain seats that Labour needs to form the next government. Labour losing traditionally safe seats with sizeable Muslim communities to the Workers Party would also be a welcome – albeit unlikely – bonus.

Opinion polls have nevertheless given Labour a 15-20 per cent lead over the Conservatives for almost two years, which if repeated at the general election would deliver a landslide victory. Further polling also suggests that Gaza is not a main priority for an electorate more concerned with illegal immigration, faltering public services, and a cost-of-living crisis. Despite the UK’s involvement in airstrikes against Houthi assets in Yemen, the threat posed by Russia is likely the main foreign policy concern for most British voters.

The Conservatives’ ability to utilise Gaza to wrestle victory from Labour is therefore limited. Without a rapid turnaround in support, a ‘Gaza election’ campaign will be nothing more than a damage limitation exercise to restrict the opposition to a comfortable rather than overwhelming majority. With his party expected to field only 55 candidates at the general election George Galloway also knows about limitations. But that won’t stop him tapping into disaffected voters to highlight the plight of Gazans who, in his own words, are soaking wet, freezing cold, and hungry because of Israel’s campaign against them.

Adam Dempsey is a strategic communications consultant and policy analyst based in Doha.

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Adam Dempsey