Photos: David Hunt/cc and Nick Clare
Photos: David Hunt/cc and Nick Clare

The Rochdale by-election on 29 February could not have delivered a more emphatic rejection of the capitalist establishment and its tame politicians if it had been a scripted drama.

George Galloway won with a decisive majority, polling 12,335 votes, a 39.7% share, a crushing refutation of Sir Keir Starmer’s New Labour Mark II. In second place, with 21.3%, was a local independent candidate, David Tully, campaigning on issues such as the reinstatement of a maternity ward in the borough, and funding for local amateur sports and the threatened Rochdale football club.

Meanwhile, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, and Labour – whose ‘disowned’ candidate Azhar Ali still appeared at the top of the ballot paper as Labour, next to the rose emblem – mustered just 26.7% between them, compared to their combined 90% share of the vote in the 2019 general election. 

Also significant was the poor vote for the Reform UK-Brexit Party candidate, the former right-wing Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who came in sixth, with 1,968 votes (6.3%). This was less than the Brexit Party won in 2019, when they came in third, or UKIP’s second place finish, with 18.8% of the vote, in 2015.

Much more can be said on the significance of the ‘Rochdale rising’, but for now we publish below the editorial from the latest edition of the Socialist Party’s monthly magazine, Socialism Today; published before the result was known but a summary of what Rochdale and the two other recent by-elections say about the fight for workers’ politics in the new situation unfolding in Britain today.

Keir Starmer is on his way to Downing Street this year. The two most recent by-elections, Wellingborough and Kingswood, where Labour overturned large Tory majorities, were the continuation of an established trend. Of the ten by-elections with the biggest swings to Labour in history, five have been in the last year. The Wellingborough swing was the second largest since 1945 which, if repeated in a general election, would leave the Tories with just a handful of seats.

Those headlines, however, while highlighting the depth of visceral anger at the Tory Party, do not tell the whole story. Labour is being swept into power on a wave of disillusionment. Labour canvassers in the by-elections told the press “voters hate all of us”. Labour’s total number of votes in Wellingborough was only 107 more than it achieved in 2019 under Jeremy Corbyn, and 4,275 less than in 2017. In Kingswood, Labour’s 11,176 vote in the by-election was over 4,000 fewer even than 2019.

Some may assume that this is just because ‘turnouts are always lower in by-elections’, but the trend of abysmal by-election turnouts itself reflects the levels of disillusionment and anger with all capitalist politicians. The last time there was a by-election in Wellingborough, in 1969, the turnout was almost 70%, compared to 38% this time around! John Curtice, President of the British Polling Council, pointed out that “on average turnout has fallen in all by-elections since 2019 by 28.1 points. This is slightly more than the previous record [fall] of 27.8 points in the by-elections in the 1997-2001 parliament. That was followed by a record low turnout of 59% in the 2001 general election”, a portent for today.

On paper the coming general election may go down in history as a ‘Labour landslide,’ although the scale of Labour’s victory is still far from certain. Whatever the headlines, however, the reality will be a low turnout, millions voting Labour only to defeat the Tories, and sizeable minorities backing smaller parties.

Filling the vacuum

Both by-elections drive home the urgency of fighting to create a political voice for the working class. Overwhelming disillusionment with a Starmer-led government is guaranteed. It will inevitably face huge opposition, resulting in the shattering of its already very shallow social base. If a significant workers’ party with a bloc of MPs already existed, it would have the prospect of rapidly becoming a mass force.

The creation of such a party is a pre-requisite for successfully combatting the right-wing populists, who will undoubtedly attempt to harness disillusionment with Starmerism. Reform UK won almost 4,000 votes in Wellingborough and over 2,500 in Kingswood. Both figures are still far short of the levels reached in those seats by UKIP in 2015, but nonetheless give a hint of the danger of the nationalist ‘little Englanders’ gaining under the next government.

The reason we do not yet have a new workers’ party is not a lack of potential. That was shown by the half a million people who signed up to Enough is Enough in 2022, launched at the high point of the strike wave by the general secretaries of the RMT transport workers’ union and the Communication Workers’ Union, Mick Lynch and Dave Ward. Eighteen months later and it has virtually disappeared because its leaders saw it as ‘anything but’ a new political party.

The absence of a new party has not, of course, removed the urgent need for one, as has been clearly demonstrated by the mass anti-war movement against the onslaught on Gaza. Had a democratic party with socialist policies, based on the workers’ movement, been launched during the strike wave it would have put the anti-war movement in a qualitatively stronger position. The millions who are enraged by Starmer’s slavish echoing of US imperialism’s support for the war on Gaza would have flocked towards it, linking the struggle in defence of workers’ interests in Britain to the fight for working-class solidarity against the capitalist warmongers worldwide.

As it is, over a hundred Labour councillors have resigned from Labour over Gaza, and there is speculation about various independent anti-war candidates in the general election. Yet there is not so far any sign of a national political expression of the anti-war movement, never mind one based on the workers’ movement. At this stage there are not likely to be qualitative steps towards a new party before the general election, particularly if it is in May. However, a workers’ list – including suspended, expelled and deselected Labour MPs – could get a bloc of MPs elected. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), in which the Socialist Party participates, is campaigning to bring together the strongest possible working-class challenge at both the local and general elections.

Building on Rochdale

And in the Rochdale by-election, unlike the previous two, there was at least an opportunity to vote for a candidate standing on an anti-war and anti-austerity programme. The Rochdale result will be known just after we publish but following Labour disbarring their own candidate, George Galloway became the bookies favourite to win. And whatever the exact outcome, Galloway will receive a significant vote from those angry with Starmer’s Labour for its stance on Gaza, but also its pro-capitalist politics.

One Rochdale life-long Labour supporting lorry driver summed up that mood when he told the Guardian newspaper (14 February 2024) that “Keir Starmer is taking it too far to the right for me. It’s just becoming a pale imitation of the Conservative Party”. He went on to say of Galloway that “I don’t agree with 10% of what he says, but 90% I do agree with. He’s got an appeal to the workers… whereas the Labour Party now are not representing the workers anymore”.

Some on the left refused to call for a vote for Galloway in this by-election because of their disagreement with various of his policies and those of his party, the Workers’ Party of Britain. Debating mistaken positions is vital, as the Socialist Party has consistently done, with the Workers’ Party and others. This did not justify refusing to call for a vote for Galloway in Rochdale, however.

Galloway’s stand will raise the confidence of all those looking for a working-class socialist alternative to Labour. Marxists are governed by what will take the struggle of the working class forward, bringing it even a quarter of a step closer to conquering power. That is why it was correct to call for a vote for Galloway, just as Friedrich Engels called for support for the first two independent Labour MPs, Keir Hardie and John Burns, and exulted in their victory, declaring that “the new working-class movement enters parliament triumphantly” (Letter to L Lafargue, 7 July 1892).

His enthusiasm was not for the individuals involved but what they represented. In fact, he once said of Hardie “he is a super-cunning Scot, whose demagogic tricks are not to be trusted for a minute” and even that “the man is the greatest obstacle at present” to the development of a new party (Letter to Friedrich Sorge, 10 November 1894)! Hardie, of course, despite his faults, did play a key role in founding the Labour Party as a political expression of the trade union movement. We base ourselves, as Engels did, not simply on critiques of individuals, but on how best to fight for steps forward for the working class at each stage.

Of course, George Galloway has twice before been elected as an MP outside of Labour, first in Bethnal Green and Bow, and then in Bradford West. Unfortunately, the opportunity for those victories to be a step towards a democratic mass workers’ party was not taken. It could not be clearer that a parliamentary figurehead alone is not an alternative vehicle for working-class political representation. Nonetheless, a strong parliamentary campaign can be a lever to speed up the development of a new party and, on the basis of collaboration with others in the trade union and socialist movement, George Galloway and the Workers’ Party could contribute to this process.

Over the last two years of strikes the working class in Britain has begun to feel its collective power. It is about to face a Labour-led government that will defend the interests of the capitalist class. Further development of trade union militancy is going to be vital, but our class will also desperately need its own party. Any steps that can be taken in that direction in the pre-election period will put the workers’ movement in a much stronger position for the battles ahead.