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Rochdale at the Crossroads: Local concerns and national turmoil in the latest by-election

Reflections

Far from an election dominated by local issues, the people of Rochdale went to the polls yesterday after a chaotic few weeks that saw a further erosion of trust in our politicians and the broken system they inhabit. The 22nd by-election in this parliament was overshadowed by the war in Gaza, antisemitism and unsavoury mudslinging from all sides, turning what should have been a straightforward win for Labour into a circus. Personally disappointing to see eleven candidates vying for the position with not one of them female, politicians of all persuasions must surely now work towards doing better, on all fronts.

Watch the victory speech from George Galloway, the divisive Workers Party of Britain candidate who ended the night with nearly 40% of the votes, and you’ll hear the rallying cry of someone hell bent on upsetting the course of politics as we know it. In Galloway’s own words, he intends to spark a shifting of the tectonic plates in scores of constituencies. Labour, he said, is on notice that they have lost the confidence of millions of voters. Whether that’s really the case or whether the protest vote was able to manifest itself here more than elsewhere with Labour removing their support for their own candidate two weeks before the polls, remains to be seen. But in a constituency where 28% of children live in poverty, where deprivation and housing issues are rife, local priorities were given comparatively little airtime.

The residents of Rochdale have witnessed the ebb and flow of the town’s fortunes, with many sharing a vision for a revitalised town centre, the desperate need for quality affordable housing and a solution to environmental issues such as fly tipping. Concerns of affordability and sustainability are the same here as they are for towns across the country.

Talking to a weekly lunch club of local women at the Castlemere Community Centre before the election, Galloway’s localism extended to the promise to bring a Primark to Rochdale. He said he wants to improve health services and re-open the town’s A&E and maternity units. He’s also pledged to create a ‘grand alliance’ with independents and others to sweep mainstream parties out of the local council. The latter strikes me as nothing more than an opportunity to create further division at a time when the country needs anything but. Mainstream parties need to get their houses in order before the general election, no doubt, but let’s not forget that a third of Rochdale Borough Councillors are also up for election in two months time. Whether the circus will have left town by then is anyone’s guess.

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