Disillusionment and disappointment: the strange case of Rochdale


Electoral entropy ensues in the Greater Manchester town of Rochdale, a town which has been torn by poor policy and politicians

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Image by Geograph Britain and Ireland

By Antonia Shipley

On an overcast Saturday in February, the air is tinged with dampness and despondency, there seems to be an unshakeable milieu of apathy and disillusionment, it wouldn’t appear there was a momentous by-election here.

As a native Mancunian, I was keen to visit Rochdale for the by-election and better understand why the area, which is so often forgotten about or ‘left behind’ in policy-making, is now on the frontlines of every tabloid paper.

Rochdale is steeped in a rich and radical history of labour, spearheading the Industrial Revolution with prodigious cotton and textile factories, making it a key trading post for the country’s wool merchants. It is also the birthplace of the Cricket Ball, made by Rochdale cobbler Hamlet Nicholson in 1860. Most notably perhaps, it was the very place where the modern Co-operative movement was created on 21 December 1844, with the Rochdale Equitable Pioneer Society starting a revolution that would shift the world of business and labour on its axis forever. However, this history of radical mavericks and pioneers is often forgotten, and in its place is a tale of deprivation, with 28 percent of children living in poverty, making it one of the most impoverished areas in the UK. These adversities have heightened divisions, which has made it something of a political minefield, with the EDL rallying there a number of times, and often using it as a subject of their vitriol and vituperation which has marred the area's radical history.

Rochdale is no stranger to scandal, particularly following the Rochdale sex abuse case, in which nine British Pakistani men were convicted of sex trafficking, with up to forty-seven girls being identified as victims of child exploitation during the investigation. Both Greater Manchester Police and Rochdale Council were found culpable for negligence in the case. This catastrophe was equated to the racial backdrop of the area, with 30 percent of residents being Muslim, sparking racism and shock across the nation. This made Rochdale a place only “worth” mentioning through a pursed lip. Prior to this, it had been represented by Liberal/ Liberal Democrat MP Cyril Smith, who was found to have sexually assaulted a large number of teenage boys, only discovered after his death due to a copious amount of clandestine cover-up. It was also represented by Simon Danczuk from 2010-2017, who was suspended from the Labour Party in 2015 after it emerged that he had sent explicit messages to a minor. This seemingly unabating political entropy seemed to pause with the election of highly respected Tony Lloyd in 2017, who was popular in both Rochdale and Westminster, serving on the Labour frontbench in a number of positions, passing away earlier this year.

The death of Tony Lloyd was an enormous loss for British politics as a whole, but particularly for his constituents in Rochdale. The by-election that would follow was hoped to be one of relative consensus and peace, as Lloyd’s family had requested, yet no one could predict the entropy that would ensue, with the town becoming the epicentre of political scandal and mass media attention once again. The disgraced former MP Danczuk threw his hat into the ring for the pro-Brexit Reform party, along with George Galloway reappearing, not as a nightmare of the 2000’s from his utterly traumatising Celebrity Big Brother performance, but rather as a champion of the Palestinian cause, presenting as an alternative to the ‘pro-Israel’ sentiment of Parliament, garnering support across the country and particularly among Muslim populations. The picture was still somewhat hopeful for Labour, with Azhar Ali appearing to be able to secure the seat, albeit by a fine margin, in spite of Labour alienating a significant proportion of the Muslim vote in the area due to its position on Gaza. That was until it emerged that Ali had supported an anti-Israel conspiracy theory that the government was aware of Hamas’ attack before it happened, news I read on the train back from Rochdale, with utter shock and uncertainty about what would happen next. Two days later the shutters of the Labour Club were down, where a multitude of frontbenchers had visited over the previous weeks, and all support from the party was withdrawn, however, the deadline for his withdrawal had already passed, meaning he would still appear on the ballot as the Labour Party candidate.

No one can quite predict what will happen next, or whether the people of Rochdale, in such profound need, will be truly represented at all. When talking to members of the constituency, those who did want to talk, spoke with an implacable apathy, some did not even know there was a by-election happening, too busy with the “real life stuff” as one individual put it. Whilst Labour now celebrates huge wins in Kingswood and Wellingborough following by-elections, it seems unfair to act as though Rochdale simply isn't happening. The Israel-Palestine seems to have exacerbated feelings of antipathy towards the two main parties, so surely it is wrong to be simply ‘forgetting’ about an area of the population as it is no longer propitious to electoral success, perhaps a plan should have been put in place which would reprimand Ali’s remarks whilst not simultaneously punishing the community. An area of such concentrated deprivation and division needs parliamentary representation.

This farrago lends to the much-pondered question regarding the calibre of moral fibre of contemporary politicians; love them or hate them, politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, Tony Benn and Denis Healy are seen as relics of a time long gone, in which politicians had a sort of ‘gumption’ and discipline that is much rarer in politics now. With the successive scandals that have plagued the nation such as partygate and the disastrous doctrinaire ‘mini-budget’ that has left us a laughing stock on the international stage, we must be focussed on installing a stable government, but this does not necessitate compromising on morals and ethics, it cannot be done at the cost of those in need.

We must reinstate political faith into our nation, making voting and political participation a pride, leaving no room for populists or hateful groups to exploit and incite hate. This must be accompanied by uncorrupted politicians and a collective effort to install hope and progress across the nation, including areas that may seem a ‘lost cause’.