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Palestine taking centre stage in local elections is a warning to Israel and its friends

March 14, 2024 at 8:05 am

George Galloway arrives at a protest on the war in Gaza March 6, 2024 in London, England. [Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images]

History is, sometimes, made in unexpected ways, in unknown places, by the few, to be remembered by the many. This is exactly what happened in the Borough of Rochdale in the Greater Manchester area in the North-west of the United Kingdom—a small place, hardly appearing on the map, yet it made history in an unexpected manner.

Rochdale, which many of us never heard of before, is a district of only about 223,800 people, according to the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics, with a median age of 38 years old, meaning that the majority of the people of Rochdale are young—the significance of which will come later.

On 1 March, the little town delivered a historical vote by electing the well-known politician, commentator and former Member of Parliament, George Galloway. He received over 12,000 votes. His victory has been crushing to the UK’s two big parties: the Conservatives Party, in government now, and its political archrival, the Labour Party, which leads the opposition. The Conservatives failed to even come in second place, which is taken by an unknown local businessman—another blow to all mainstream party politics.

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Mr. Galloway is not new to politics inside the UK and outside. He is as controversial as ever and usually disliked by the establishment for his speaking out when others prefer to keep silent. He has been accused of all sorts of misdeeds, sins and expelled from the Labour Party for opposing the 2003 war on Iraq. His testimony before the United States Senate in 2005 still resonates today for the way in which he, fearlessly and rather courageously, defended himself while exposing the hypocritical polices of the US. He was accused by the US of getting paid by the Iraqi regime for his anti-sanctions and anti-war activism.

His personality and behaviour aside, his Rochdale election victory will resonate across UK for a long time to come. The fact that he ran a Gaza-featuring election campaign was a risky business that had the potential to not only fail, but also make Mr. Galloway the target of ridicule and further contempt by the Israeli lobby.

In local by-elections in small towns like Rochdale, issues such as public services tend to dominate the political debate but, in Rochdale, where a sizeable section of the population is Muslim, that was not the case. Many have accused George Galloway of being an opportunist and conceited, with an over-inflated ego.

Some of that might be true, but it does not change the fact that he cleverly understood what the public mood was, at least in Rochdale, let alone in the entire country. He also understood that the wider British public opinion is frustrated with the mainstream party politics and its failure to act against Israel, while it continues to kill more Palestinian women and children by bullets, rockets, bombs and starvation, as nearly half of the Gaza population faces famine.

Despite being only a by-election in a small town, its significance is not to be missed as indicative of many things at once, including the changing public mood about foreign policy issue in local elections—more on this later. For Mr. Galloway to contest and win elections in a small town is “beyond alarming” to all big parties according to the British Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative Party, in his first reaction of the shocking Galloway win. Mr. Sunak had another reason to be upset: the Conservative Party’s candidate won only about 3,700 votes, which is one-third of that of Mr. Galloway.

What really drove the Prime Minister nuts is the fact that how a foreign policy issue could have so much impact on elections, usually earmarked to be a dull battle over insignificant local issues? Furthermore, Sunak hated the fact that he misread the wishes of the British public, while thousands of them have been calling on him to support a ceasefire in Gaza and stop supporting Israel. In venting his anger and frustration, Rishi Sunak stopped short of portraying him as an anti-Semite, but did accuse him of dismissing “the horror of what happened on 7 October”, according to the Prime Minister.

However Rishi Sunak is right in saying that such a win is “beyond alarming”.

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Furthermore, to win with such a majority speaks volumes about how the British political scene has evolved in at least two aspects: one, how a foreign policy issue, namely Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza has become something of importance to the electorate, at least in tiny Rochdale. And, two, the fact that the majority of those who voted for George Galloway are young people –as obvious from the average median in Rochdale. This means, among other things, that the new generation of activists are able to change things from the bottom up and will not be taken for a ride by shrewd politicians, as the Labour Party did in its support for the Iraq invasion in 2003.

The third issue Rochdale exposed is the fact that Gaza and the Palestinian issue, as a whole tragedy of oppression and apartheid, can take centre stage and can deliver a crushing blow to those who tend to look the other way while supporting the aggressor—genocide Israel, in this case.

The Rochdale by-elections result can also be seen as a warning to both Conservative and Labour parties that elections are no longer locally-based contests.

A similar development took place in the US State of Michigan when, on 29 February, some 100,000 voters in the State’s Democratic primary chose to vote “uncommitted”, which means they support the party of the candidate, Joe Biden in this case, but not Biden himself. That vote came as a warning shot for Joe Biden as he prepares to contest the November presidential election against a rather popular former president, Donald Trump.

In both Michigan – and Rochdale, later – the message to politicians is clear: you cannot be complacent to genocide, support those who commit it, defend them before the World Court and bankroll them and expect us, the electorate, to forget all that when we cast our votes.

The overall message echoing across the USA, the UK and many other Western countries is very clear:  Palestine is no longer an occasional cry screamed by the underdogs, but an issue of local and national politics and politicians should pay attention to it.

What happened in Michigan, USA, and Rochdale, UK, is very likely to be repeated in European parliamentary elections due next June, particularly in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, where the anti-Israeli sentiments and condemnation of its crimes against the Palestinians run high.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.