(Bloomberg) -- Left-wing disrupter George Galloway won a seat in the UK Parliament in a special election that underscored how the Israel-Hamas war has exacerbated community tensions and sowed division across British politics.

Galloway, leader of the Workers Party of Britain, won 40% of the vote in Rochdale, northwest England, with a campaign focused on calling for an end to the conflict in Gaza. David Tully, an independent, came in second on 21%, beating Paul Ellison, for the UK’s governing Conservative Party on 12% and Azhar Ali, a candidate for the Labour Party until he was dropped over comments about the war, on 7.7%. Turnout was just under 40%.

The vote was triggered by the death of Labour MP Tony Lloyd, and the outcome ends a run of thumping by-election victories by Keir Starmer’s Labour Party over Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Tories. While Galloway’s win will likely have little bearing on a general election expected later this year — polls put Labour on course to oust the Conservatives after 14 years in power — it nevertheless has the potential to exacerbate tensions within the opposition party, which has been split over Gaza in recent months. 

“Keir Starmer, this is for Gaza,” Galloway said early Friday in the opening to his victory speech. “You have paid and you will pay a high price for the role that you have played in enabling, encouraging and covering for the catastrophe presently going on in occupied Palestine in the Gaza Strip.”

A former Labour Member of Parliament, Galloway was expelled in 2003 over comments on the Iraq war, and went on to win two parliamentary elections for the Respect Party — in east London in 2005 and then in Bradford, northeast England, in 2012.

Galloway “has been a constant thorn in Labour’s side for many years now and this will provide him with an opportunity to return to that very public role of agent provocateur” in the Commons, Deltapoll Co-founder Joe Twyman told the BBC. “I’m sure that the questions about Gaza, Palestine, Israel, they will be raised, causing discomfort for Labour and Keir Starmer at a time that they particularly don’t want to focus on that.”

While Galloway denies being antisemitic, the Campaign Against Antisemitism issued a statement citing his “historic inflammatory rhetoric,” and expressing concern about “how he may use the platform of the House of Commons in the remaining months of this parliament.”

The left-wing politician’s latest win will add to the sense of disarray in British politics fueled by Hamas’s attack on Israel in October, which has led to a surge in reports of antisemitic and Islamophobic hate crimes and put a major strain on Parliament.

That political backdrop hung over campaigning in Rochdale, a former mill town near Manchester with a large Muslim population that had been held by Labour since 2010. When a recording emerged of Ali repeating a conspiracy theory that Israel was complicit in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, Labour dropped him as a candidate, leaving the field wide open for smaller parties to capitalize.

The turmoil was tailor-made for Galloway, 69, who has made a career out of whipping up division especially in areas with substantial Muslim populations. He quickly became the bookmakers’ favorite to win, and he directed his criticism at Labour and Starmer for not taking a tougher line on Israel.

While Labour will fancy its chances of taking Rochdale back at the general election due in the next 11 months, the risk for Starmer is that Galloway uses his time in Parliament to poke at the simmering tensions within Labour about Gaza.

Starmer has spent months battling to keep his MPs united on an issue that hits a number of pressure points, from his desire to present his poll-leading party as a government-in-waiting ahead of the UK election, to local pressure in key districts, and his push to draw a line under the allegations of antisemitism that dogged Labour under his left-wing predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.

The Labour leader faced accusations he acted too late in withdrawing support from Ali, having initially stood by him when the Mail on Sunday newspaper published his comments this month — after the deadline had passed for Labour to change candidates. Ali had received backing from prominent Jewish people in the party, but Starmer dropped him after further comments were reported.

Yet it’s not just Labour feeling the strain. Despite trailing by about 20 points in national polls, Sunak has spent much of the last week grappling with an Islamophobia row that is further undermining his grip on the party.

The furor was triggered when Tory MP Lee Anderson, who just weeks ago was the Conservative Party’s deputy chairman, said Islamists have “got control of London” and that the Labour mayor Sadiq Khan — a Muslim — had “given our capital city away to his mates.” He was suspended from the parliamentary party, but Sunak faced a backlash especially from right-wing Tories.

“Every Muslim is bitterly angry at Keir Starmer and his misnamed Labour Party, but you would be very foolish if you did not realize that millions of other citizens of our country are too,” Galloway said. “Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak are two cheeks of the same backside and they both got well and truly spanked tonight here in Rochdale.”

--With assistance from Josh Xiao and Shamim Adam.

(Updates with vote shares in second paragraph.)

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