(Bloomberg) -- Left-wing serial disrupter George Galloway’s return to Parliament throws more volatility into the already febrile mix in British politics, as the Israel-Hamas war upends community cohesion and parties grapple for a stance on the conflict that doesn’t alienate supporters.

The 69-year-old’s by-election victory in Rochdale, northwest England was yet another dramatic moment in a parliamentary cycle with no shortage of them. Though it provides limited lessons for the Conservative-Labour battle in the looming general election, few Members of Parliament will welcome Galloway’s amplified voice causing trouble ahead of the vote. He used his victory speech early Friday to attack those parties’ leaders.

“Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak are two cheeks of the same backside and they both got well and truly spanked tonight,” Galloway said after the seventh parliamentary election win in his constituency-hopping career. He began his address taking aim at Labour’s internal strife on the war in the Middle East, saying: “Keir Starmer, this is for Gaza.”

It will be Starmer who feels the immediate pain from Galloway’s reemergence. Kicked out of the party about two decades ago, Galloway has pent-up resentment, and his political views overlap with Labour’s socialist wing that Starmer has worked hard to quash since taking over in 2020.

Gaza is Starmer’s biggest vulnerability. The conflict has poked at long-running Labour pressure points, including allegations of antisemitism that dogged the party under his left-wing predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.

Starmer’s electoral pitch, which has seen Labour hold a lead fluctuating around 20 points over Sunak’s Tories for months, is built around how much he has changed the party since the Corbyn era — it’s more pro-business, and in Starmer’s own words, it’s now “about government not protest.”

The task of presenting Labour as a government-in-waiting has rubbed plenty of nerves, especially on the party’s left. Starmer’s reluctance to call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza in November, which angered his MPs, was at least in part about signaling how Labour has changed, showing voters the party was ready to act like a government on complicated foreign policy.

“Although most Labour supporters don’t take a side in the current conflict in the Middle East, those who do — both Muslim and non-Muslim — are much more likely to support the Palestinian side,” John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, told the BBC. He said the wider electoral impact will be limited because Labour typically has big majorities in constituencies with large Muslim communities.

Labour’s tensions spilled out in Rochdale, and Galloway took advantage. Though it was too late to change the ballot papers, Labour had no candidate after ditching Azhar Ali over remarks he made implying that Israel was complicit in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. While Starmer’s party will fancy its chances of recovering a seat it had held since 2010 at the general election, Galloway’s win points to months of discomfort.

There were echoes of Galloway’s past wins in the Rochdale election, which he won with a 40% vote share, on a turnout of just under 40%. He was expelled from Labour in 2003, while the party was in government under Tony Blair, over his condemnation of the Iraq war. He later won two parliamentary elections for the Respect Party — in east London in 2005 and then in Bradford, northern England, in 2012. He has long been criticized for whipping up division, particularly in areas with substantial Muslim populations.

For years before that, though, Galloway was building a reputation as a renegade voice. He famously met Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 1994, three years after the first Gulf War in which allied forces had driven Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait – a conflict he opposed. “I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability,” Galloway told Hussein.

He gained a wider audience in 2005, when he appeared before a US Senate hearing to counter allegations he had profited from sales of Iraqi oil. Galloway denied that and told the panel that “$8.8 billion of Iraq’s wealth went missing on your watch” and that the “real sanctions busters were your own companies with the connivance of your own government.”

The question hanging over British politics is how much Galloway, in the social media era, can replicate his record of bending narratives. In Rochdale, he said his Workers Party of Britain will target more seats in the general election. When it was put to him that a single MP could have little influence, he replied: “Do you think so, do you really think so?”

That’s a warning that will reverberate beyond Labour. For all their politicking, little separates them on the Israel-Hamas war — Labour, the Tories and the Scottish National Party all want some sort of cease-fire in Gaza, though for party-management reasons, they differ on the wording.

In a Downing Street speech announced suddenly on Friday, Sunak said Galloway’s victory was “beyond alarming.” He went on to criticize what he called extremist elements around recent pro-Palestinian marches. 

“What started as protests on our streets have descended into intimidation, threats and planned acts of violence,” Sunak said. “Islamist extremists and the far right feed off and embolden each other.”

Sunak’s Conservatives are embroiled in an Islamophobia row related to protests around the conflict in Gaza. 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 who want to take over after the election.

Then there’s the wider backdrop of intimidation against MPs, which saw the government promise more funding for security and Sunak warn about “forces here at home trying to tear us apart.” Adding a voice like Galloway’s into the political zeitgeist risks fueling extremes on both sides of his argument.

While Galloway has denied antisemitism, a spokesperson for the Board of Deputies of British Jews called his victory a “dark day for the Jewish community.”

Critics point to his short-term appeal where he won in the past — voters in Bradford and Bethnal Green removed him at their first opportunity — and the divisiveness that alienates all but his most ardent followers.

But it’s events in Gaza that are likely to have the biggest say over Galloway’s impact. A pause in the fighting there in November took some of the heat out of British politics, and it won’t be just Starmer hoping that talks about a cease-fire are successful in the coming days. 

“There aren’t 100 George Galloways, there are not even three, four, five, six,” John McTernan, a former adviser to Blair, told BBC radio. The Rochdale result, he said, was down to parties unable to reach a unified voice that matches the public view on Gaza, that the fighting should stop. “That’s a force in British politics that nobody in Parliament is able to channel properly.”

--With assistance from Alex Morales.

(Updates with Sunak comments from 15th paragraph.)

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