Polls have closed in Rochdale after one of the most divisive by-elections of recent years.

Alleged death threats, candidates wearing stab vests and vandalism were reported during campaigning to win the seat after the death last month of sitting MP Sir Tony Lloyd.

Former Labour MP and Celebrity Big Brother contestant George Galloway emerged as the frontrunner after Labour withdrew its support from candidate Azhar Ali, who was filmed suggesting Israel was complicit in the massacre of its own people in the October 7 terror outrage launched by Hamas.

Mr Ali remained on the ballot as the Labour candidate, with the party’s decision coming too late to change the papers, but will sit as an independent if he wins.

Rochdale by-election
George Galloway has emerged as the favourite to take the Rochdale seat in Thursday’s by-election. (James Speakman/PA)

Mr Galloway, representing the Workers Party of Britain, has campaigned heavily on the Palestinian cause in Gaza, aiming to use the issue to mobilise Muslim voters in Rochdale.

Rival candidate Simon Danczuk, representing Reform UK, accused Mr Galloway of being divisive and said he would be the “MP for Gaza” rather than Rochdale.

Mr Danczuk himself previously represented the seat as a Labour MP but was barred from standing for the party in 2017 after apologising for “inappropriate” text messages sent to a 17-year-old girl. He stood as an independent that year and received only 883 votes.

During the 2024 campaign, he reported being the subject of a death threat, with police reportedly making an arrest.

Guy Otten, the Green Party candidate, has also had party support withdrawn over comments made on social media but his name will also appear on the ballot paper.

The town, which is one of the most deprived in England and voted 60% in favour of Brexit, has been the subject of Asian grooming gang scandals, with a major report in January concluding that young girls were left “at the mercy” of paedophiles due to failings by senior police and council bosses.

Billy Howarth, a local man, is involved in the Parents Against Grooming UK group and is standing as an independent.

Mr Howarth said he has taken to wearing a stab vest while campaigning, such are tensions in the town.

Also standing are Iain Donaldson (Liberal Democrats), Paul Ellison (Conservative Party), Michael Howarth (Independent), Ravin Rodent Subortna (Official Monster Raving Loony Party) and David Tully (Independent).

The result is expected to be announced at around 3am on Friday.