Rochdale: Reopen nominations

Veronica Fagan explains why she cannot in good conscience vote for any of the candidates in the Rochdale by-election, critiquing Labour for its mishandling of Ali's candidature and antisemitism issues, rejecting Galloway and the Workers Party for their limited platform and troubling views, and finding the other candidates lacking as well.

 

I’m glad I don’t live in Rochdale. It’s not that I have anything against the place itself, but rather that I think voters are being given an impossible choice when it comes to today’s by-election. The best move I can think of would be to write reopen nominations on my ballot paper….I know that’s not something that has any impact on the outcome, but it seems less despairing than just staying at home and more active than scrawling ‘none of the above’.

So why have I come to this conclusion—not one I can think of a precedent for?

Labour

Much has been written about the acrobatics of the Labour leadership in embracing, defending, and then eventually disowning their erstwhile candidate, Azhar Ali.

Labour Hub, in a useful piece, chronicles all this in detail. I strongly agree with their main conclusion—that Ali was treated more favourably because he is on the Labour right. However, it’s also worth pointing out that there was not only disarray in Labour’s HQ over how to respond but amongst a number of Jewish groups and individuals too. For example, former Labour MP Louise Ellman, who left the party and made vitriolic attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, initially responded the day the Daily Fail broke the story with this tweet. She condemns Ali’s statement but defends his record. This statement from the Jewish Representative Council of Greater Manchester and Region, tweeted by them on February 11 and retweeted the same day by the Jewish Labour Movement’s (JLM) Mike Katz, similarly does not call for Ali to be suspended.

Neither did the JLM at this point, though they did say they would not campaign for him.

It was only after a second piece of evidence that a number of these commentators—and the Labour hierarchy—shifted and Ali’s candidature was revoked. This second piece of evidence is worth examining. The Lancashire Telegraph reports it like this:

“Then there were further revelation when he was accused of saying ‘people in the media from certain Jewish quarters’ were ‘giving crap’ about MP Andy McDonald, who was suspended by Labour after he used the phrase “between the river and the sea” in a speech during a rally.”

While the BBC says something similar.

Both aspects of Ali’s words are deeply problematic. Both use common antisemitic tropes, the first based on conspiracy theories and the second implying Jewish control of the media. The only thing that is different about the second clip is that Ali appears to be supporting someone on the left of the party. Andy McDonald MP, who was suspended from Labour at the end of October 2023 for using the phrase ‘between the river to the sea’, according to the BBC and many others…

McDonald’s story is pretty typical of those on the left subject to the weaponisation of antisemitism. What he actually said, as Jewish Voice for Labour’s (JVL) Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi reports here, was that he would not rest:

“until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty.” 

I agree with her that this is neither ‘anti-Jewish nor anti-Israeli, but sheer factionalism. And it seems not a step too far to suggest that this was Ali’s real crime for Ellman, for Katz, and therefore for Starmer—not his use of tropes, but his support for someone on the left.

Back to Rochdale. I wouldn’t vote for Ali. I think his comments were at least borderline antisemitic, but that’s not the same as saying he is antisemitic. People can make mistakes or be unaware of dangerous stereotypes they might repeat. They can change through discussion, through involvement in common activities with others, or preferably through both.

But his rush to apologise when the first snippet was published doesn’t indicate someone who would be a reliable representative, and he clearly doesn’t share my politics on other issues; otherwise, neither Ellman nor Starmer would have rushed to defend him.

Workers Party

So who else is on offer? George Galloway, standing on behalf of the Workers Party of Britain, is the favourite after Ali was disowned by Labour – and undoubtedly his candidacy is one of the reasons Labour were reluctant to do dump Ali.

A sizeable proportion of people I campaign alongside, comrades I respect, argue that he should be supported. So why do I strongly disagree.

First while Israel’s war against the Palestinians, stepped up to genocidal proportions since October 7, is a massive issue not only in world politics but in my own activity – and in my heart – I don’t agree that its right to vote in an election on a single issue. I respect people, many of them friends, who march with the slogan ‘No Ceasefire, No vote’ but I don’t automatically agree. It’s a call open to interpretation – for some it means no vote in any circumstances for Labour even if the Labour candidate in your constituency is a consistent supporter of the Palestinian people. Then for others its logic would mean voting for someone like Jess Philips because she voted for ceasefire last time – even if there were a credible candidate to her left….

Second there are sharp and deep problems with the positions of the Workers Party and of Galloway on a number of key questions and I think that’s why voting for him is something I could not do.

It’s not so much the 10 point programme outlined here, though even there the absence of any defence of migrants, of Black people subject to racist attacks of reproductive justice or in opposition to attacks on disabled and trans people makes it rather partial in my view. But what comes after, under the heading ‘Want to know more? Read on’…is much worse, they say:

We share the frustration many working-class women at the ridiculous intersectional ideology of radical liberals and we want a much clearer debate on Net Zero.”

Other runners

None of the other candidates on the ballot paper appeal—certainly not former Labour MP Simon Danczuk standing for ReformUK or the former Green Party candidate suspended for what seem to be islamaphobic remarks on social media—and who, as I understand it, isn’t even campaigning for themselves! If I were forced to choose Reverend Mark Coleman, standing as an independent seems like the best of a bad job. But while I agree that the environmental catastrophe needs to be front and centre of everyone’s campaigning and pledges, standing for office with nothing to say on other issues seems to me inadequate. And I’m not at all sure I want to encourage JSO to become a political party, as indicated here, though that’s a longer debate than I have time to cover before the polls close in Rochdale.


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