The key battlegrounds to watch ahead of the local election

Date published: 30 April 2024

The local elections in Rochdale could be the most unpredictable in years following the injection of a new MP into the area in George Galloway.

Come polling day on 2 May, the usual battlegrounds in the borough are in Middleton and Littleborough wards, but the impact of the Workers Party leader arriving as the new MP in the area could shake things up.

The Workers Party has fielded 13 candidates in this year’s local election out of 20 available seats.

The question that remains is whether these candidates can invigorate the same level of popularity as their party leader did in the February by-election. When Mr Galloway first announced he was running to take the Rochdale seat left vacant following the death of Labour’s Sir Tony Lloyd, he was generally seen as a dark horse in the race.

Then once Azhar Ali, Labour’s candidate, saw his party withdraw their endorsement of him after he made ‘deeply offensive’ comments about Israel, Mr Galloway was an outright favourite.

The former Labour Party MP took the seat with a whopping 12,335 votes, almost 6,000 more than second placed independent candidate David Tully. In his victory speech he instantly put Rochdale Labour on notice, vowing to oust them from the council.

He certainly caused a stir when he announced his 13 candidates, with one of his by-election rivals Billy Howarth joining the Workers Party. In the press release announcing the candidates, Mr Galloway also endorsed Middleton Independents (MIPs) and Lib Dems in certain wards where the Workers Party had not put in their own candidates.

That instantly caused tension between political parties, particularly Labour, who felt ‘the grand alliance’ promised by Mr Galloway was becoming a reality. Both the Middleton Independents and the Lib Dems have strongly denied any association with the Rochdale MP and have stated they don’t need or want his support.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Councillor Andy Kelly, will be wanting to keep hold of his seat in Milnrow and Newhey – a stronghold for their party. The party has put forward a candidate in every council ward, a statement of intent to add to their number of councillors which currently stands at three.

The Middleton Independents will be wanting to get back their two lost seats in East and North Middleton following last year's election. Residents of Middleton told the LDRS that they wanted increased police presence in the area as well as more engagement and openness from their councillors.

This area is a battle between MIP and Labour, so whichever can make the locals feel heard is most likely to edge it. Over in Littleborough Lakeside, the Conservatives will be wanting to avenge the loss of that seat from last year.

John Hartley was narrowly beaten by Councillor Richard Jackson by a margin of seven votes in 2023. Conservative Ian Jackson will be looking to oust Councillor Tom Besford there, but the Labour man is a high profile councillor in the area and will be a tough political opponent to topple.

The blues already have strongholds in the Norden, Bamford and Wardle Shore & West Littleborough wards. Any extras for them will be a bonus if they keep hold of the three seats up for grabs there.

Judging by the last election, where Norden, Bamford and Wardle Shore & West Littleborough were all comfortably held in a local election that was nationally catastrophic for the Tories, it seems unlikely a change of hands will occur there.

So Labour, the controlling group, will be fighting on multiple fronts to ward off challenges from their political rivals this year – and given what Galloway did in the by-election, there are no guarantees.

George Lythgoe, Local Democracy Reporter

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