George Galloway Wins Rochdale By-Election in Blow to Labour Party

A parliamentary district held recently by Britain’s main opposition Labour Party has slipped from its grip after a chaotic election campaign that became emblematic of the anger that has swept through British politics over the war in Gaza.

George Galloway, a left-wing firebrand, won the seat in Rochdale, north of Manchester, with 12,335 votes, according to official results announced early Friday. Voting had taken place on Thursday to replace Tony Lloyd, a Labour Party lawmaker who had represented the district but died of blood cancer in January.

Mr. Galloway, founder of the far-left Workers Party of Britain, once represented Labour in Parliament but was forced out of the party in 2003 over his outspoken criticism of the Iraq war.

In his campaign in Rochdale, Mr. Galloway appealed directly to the district’s Muslim voters, who make up around 30 percent of the electorate. Many of them are angry about the war in Gaza and want Britain to press harder for an immediate cease-fire.

In his campaign literature, Mr. Galloway described Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, as a “top supporter of Israel” and suggested his leadership could be weakened by the outcome of the vote. “Imagine — the people of Rochdale coming together to topple the hated Labour leader,” the leaflet added.

That prospect may be fanciful, as recent polling suggests Mr. Starmer is more popular with voters than any other leading politician in Britain. But Mr. Galloway’s victory followed a chaotic campaign for Labour. The party was forced to disown its own candidate, Azhar Ali, after a recording revealed that he had claimed that Israel had “allowed” Hamas to go ahead with the Oct. 7 attacks as a pretext to invade Gaza.

Mr. Ali later issued a statement saying that he apologized “unreservedly to the Jewish community for my comments, which were deeply offensive, ignorant, and false.”

The debacle was a particular embarrassment for Mr. Starmer, who has made a big push to root out the antisemitism that afflicted Labour under the leadership of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

To make matters worse, by the time Mr. Starmer acted against Mr. Ali, it was too late to replace him, and his name remained on the ballot for the Thursday election, attracting 2,402 votes.

Adding to the sense of chaos, one of the other candidates was Simon Danczuk, who won Rochdale for Labour in the 2010 and 2015 general elections. He was suspended by the Labour Party in 2015 for sending explicit messages to a 17-year-old girl.

Mr. Danczuk apologized at the time for “inappropriate” behavior, saying he had been “stupid,” but he now dismisses the episode as “tabloid nonsense.” This time, he ran as a candidate for Reform U.K. That hard-right party is a successor to the Brexit Party, which campaigned for Britain to quit the European Union and was once led by Nigel Farage.

The night belonged to Mr. Galloway, one of the mavericks of British politics. Known for his fierce and at times inflammatory political rhetoric — as well as for the trademark fedora hat he favors — he has a long history of outspoken comments and a flair for generating publicity.

In 2003, he referred to Tony Blair, then Britain’s prime minister, and George W. Bush, then the U.S. president, as “wolves” for invading Iraq, and he urged British troops to ignore military orders that he called illegal. He was forced out of the Labour Party later that year. Mr. Galloway went on to win parliamentary seats in 2005 in Bethnal Green in east London, and in 2012 in Bradford West, for the Respect Party.

In 2006, he appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in Britain, where at one point he surprised viewers by role-playing as a cat and licking another contestant’s hands.

Now that is he returning to Parliament, Mr. Galloway is likely to do his best to be a thorn in Labour’s side and try to exploit internal tensions over the Middle East.

The one bright spot for Mr. Starmer is that with a general election expected later this year, Mr. Galloway will face another battle for re-election soon, if he wants to stay a lawmaker for more than a few months.