Labour has launched its campaign for the Rochdale by-election, which was triggered by the death of sitting MP Sir Tony Lloyd.
Azhar Ali, a Lancashire County councillor and former government adviser who was made an OBE in 2020 for public service, is Labour’s candidate for the poll later this month.
Also running is political firebrand George Galloway, of the Workers Party of Britain, who is campaigning against Labour’s stance on the conflict in Gaza, and former Rochdale Labour MP Simon Danczuk, now the Reform Party candidate.
Around 20% of the electorate and 30% of the population of the town are Asian, with polls nationally suggesting Labour’s vote could be hit by Asian people unhappy with the party over Palestine and its perceived support for Israel.
The town, which is one of the most deprived in England and voted 60% in favour of Brexit, has also been the subject of grooming gang scandals, with a major report last month concluding that young girls were left “at the mercy” of paedophiles due to failings by senior police and council bosses.
At a campaign launch in Rochdale on Wednesday morning, Labour activists were told “others” have come to the town “to try to divide us”.
Mr Ali, whose campaign pitch is “A strong voice for Rochdale”, concentrated his launch address on the cost of living and local issues, and said he is “focused on delivering for people here”.
He said Rochdale had lost £180 million from council budgets due to Conservative Government cuts and 130,000 local people are on NHS waiting lists.
But he said he has been campaigning on Palestine since the age of 17 and called for a ceasefire in Gaza, the return of hostages, humanitarian assistance and a revived international political process for a free Palestinian state.
“Our campaign is all about making our town better. The need for a Labour government has never been greater,” he said.
Mr Ali also offered a crackdown on anti-social behaviour, local maternity services being returned to Rochdale, and free breakfast clubs in every primary school.
Andy Burnham, Labour’s Mayor of Greater Manchester, who was also at the launch, said 2024 has to be a year of change for the North of England and Britain – starting with Rochdale.
He said a decade ago the Tory Government had promised a Northern Powerhouse – which, he claimed, has not materialised.
“The Conservative Party is guilty of perpetrating a huge fraud on the people of the North of England and they won’t forget it,” he said, “People here need change.”
Sir Tony held the seat for Labour at the 2019 election with a 9,668 majority over the Conservatives.
Voters go to the polls on Thursday February 29.