(Bloomberg) -- Voters go to the polls on Thursday in a special election in northwest England that’s likely to stir political tensions over the Israel-Hamas war.

The situation in Gaza has dominated the by-election campaign in Rochdale, a town near Manchester with a large Muslim population, where left-wing firebrand George Galloway — leader of the Workers Party of Britain — hopes to resurrect his parliamentary career.

Galloway’s chances of winning were boosted by Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party disowning its candidate, Azhar Ali, after he repeated a conspiracy theory that Israel was complicit in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. Although Ali will have Labour next to his name on the ballot paper — because it was too late to change it — he’s had no official support from the party in reaching voters. Labour has no alternative candidate, meaning it will lose a seat left vacant by the death of the party’s MP, Tony Lloyd.

To add to the chaos, the Green Party abandoned its own candidate Guy Otten over comments he made about Palestine and Islam, and the Nigel Farage-founded party Reform UK is fielding Simon Danczuk who quit as a Labour MP in 2017 after sending explicit messages to a teenager.

The shambolic backdrop to the vote means it will be difficult to draw wider conclusions about the state of British politics ahead of the general election, according to Luke Tryl, UK director of the More in Common research group. 

“Because there isn’t an endorsed Labour candidate, there is no real way to judge Labour’s support,” Tryl told Bloomberg. “We’ve ended up with this referendum on Israel-Gaza being imposed on the people of Rochdale when it’s not what they want.”

Focus groups carried out by Tryl’s team in the district last week, including among Muslim voters, found people were most concerned with the cost of living, National Health Service, crime and local issues.

The Rochdale result will halt Labour’s recent run of by-election victories, just two weeks after the party overturned large Tory majorities in Wellingborough, central England, and Kingswood in the southwest. With national opinion polls for months giving Labour a double-digit lead over Rishi Sunak’s governing Conservatives, Starmer’s party looks set to win a general election that must be held in the next 11 months, ending 14 years in opposition.

Rochdale, a former mill town which is home to some of Britain’s most deprived neighborhoods, has been in Labour hands since 2010. Historically, it has flipped between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, although support for England’s traditional third party has plummeted since 2015.

Given its run of recent by-election defeats, Sunak’s Conservatives are not expecting to win in Rochdale despite coming second to Labour in the last two general elections. Reform UK is hoping to increase its vote share, tapping into the base of voters who backed the euroskeptic UK Independence Party, which came second there in 2015.

Low turnout is likely to be a factor in the results, amid dismay among the town’s constituents about the line-up of candidates. Labour front-bencher Wes Streeting and the party’s London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, have both said they would spoil their ballot if they were Rochdale voters.

Starmer has faced accusations he acted too late in withdrawing support from Ali. When a recording emerged this month of the candidate making antisemitic remarks at a meeting last year, Starmer initially stood by him before eventually changing course when further comments were reported. 

The furor threatened to undo Starmer’s efforts to convince voters Labour has moved on from the claims of antisemitism that dogged the party under his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. While Ali could still win — not least because some constituents will be unaware Labour has withdrawn its backing — the lack of on-the-ground support from the party will make it hard to mobilize voters.

That will benefit Galloway, the bookmakers’ favorite who has focused his campaign on Gaza and been highly critical of Starmer for not taking a stronger stance against Israeli military action. 

Galloway was expelled as a Labour MP in 2003 over comments he made on the Iraq war, and has since won two parliamentary elections for the Respect Party — in east London in 2005 and then in Bradford, northeast England, in 2012. He has long been criticized for whipping up division, particularly in areas with substantial Muslim populations. 

“George Galloway is attempting to turn it into a referendum on Gaza — the question is will constituents vote that way?” said Scarlett Maguire, director at polling company JL Partners. Having Galloway in Parliament would be a “nightmare” for Starmer, she said.

Starmer has been battling to keep Labour united since Hamas’s attacks in October, amid anger from some lawmakers and members that he has been slow to explicitly call for a cease-fire in Gaza. He eventually did so last week, moving further than his previous demand for a “sustainable cease-fire.”

Whoever wins in Rochdale is unlikely to remain the town’s MP after the general election, which is expected in the second half of 2024 and must be held by the end of January 2025. “The hunch is that whoever wins will probably only be in for a few months anyway,” Maguire said.

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