In Rochdale By-Election, Climate Policy is Also on the Ballot

From attacks on “eco-madness” and accusations of a “Net Zero Hoax”, here’s our climate guide to the MPs contesting Labour’s seat.
Adam Barnett - new white crop
Fomer Labour MPs Simon Danczuk and George Galloway are standing in the Rochdale by-election on February 29. Credit: PA images / Alamy stock photos

Amid February’s record-breaking temperatures, climate is emerging as a battleground – and faultline – between the UK’s two biggest political parties in the run up to the next general election.

In the past weeks, the Labour Party has dramatically scaled back its £28 billion green investment plans, while the Conservative government has committed to annual licensing rounds in the North Sea in a new oil and gas bill.

This legislation saw former green Conservative Chris Skidmore MP resign in protest in January, triggering last week’s by-election in Kingswood, which Labour won. 

Wrangling between the Tories and Labour has also opened the door for fringe political activists. Parties such as Reform UK have exploited mixed messaging over climate policy, which the UN authority on climate science, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says is essential to secure “to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”. 

Next Thursday (February 29), voters in the Greater Manchester seat of Rochdale will go to the polls in a by-election triggered by the death of Labour MP Tony Lloyd. 

The campaign has been overshadowed by the sacking of the frontrunner candidate, Azhar Ali, who was dropped by Labour over his controversial comments about the October 7 Hamas attacks. It is too late for Labour to field another candidate, and Ali will now run as an independent. 

Green Party candidate Guy Otten was also dropped over past statements on Islam and Palestinians. Otten will appear on the ballot paper, but has abstained from campaigning.

The rows have given more airtime to several fringe parties fielding candidates strongly opposed to climate action. 

Simon Danczuk, who is standing for Reform UK, and George Galloway, the candidate for the Workers Party of Britain, have both repeatedly attacked the UK’s legally binding net zero targets, while Galloway has spread climate misinformation and backed new fossil fuel extraction.

Read on to find out all you need to know on where the candidates stand on net zero and climate policy. 

Simon Danczuk – Reform UK 

This month Danczuk announced he had joined Reform UK. Danczuk was the  MP for Rochdale between 2010 and 2017. He is seeking a return to the constituency following his expulsion from the Labour Party in 2015 after sending sexually explicit messages to a 17-year-old (he served as an independent until 2017). 

As an MP, Danczuk voted for measures to prevent climate change, and in 2015 shared an article on Twitter criticising climate denial in the Daily Mail. However, Danczuk’s views appear to have changed. 

Last June he wrote an article attacking the “eco-madness” of Labour’s (now scaled back) green investment plans and its pledge not to approve new oil and gas projects. He wrote that Labour “see implementing a green ideology as more important than jobs, security and sustaining the economy”. 

The article was published in Spiked, an online “libertarian” outlet which has a record of climate science denial and fossil fuel-linked funding. Between 2015 and 2018, Spiked received $300,000  from the Charles Koch Foundation, an arm of oil giant Koch Industries and a major funder of climate denial.

Danczuk repeated the “green ideology” argument in an interview with the fringe right-wing outlet Epoch Times, stating: “The idea of banning gas and oil exploration in the North Sea, before we’ve got alternatives in place, is just absolute madness.” 

In September 2023, Danczuk publicly voiced support for the Conservative government’s net zero U-turns, telling TalkTV that voters “are very despondent about these targets” and that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had “called it right”. TalkTV has its own record of spreading climate denial, and until last year employed Reform leader Richard Tice as a presenter. 

Reform is campaigning to “scrap all of net zero” and received £135,000 in donations from climate deniers and fossil fuel interests in 2023. Tice has said “CO2 isn’t poison, it’s plant food”, while the party’s London mayoral candidate Howard Cox has said “man is not responsible for global warming”.

George Galloway – Workers Party of Britain

Another ex-Labour Party MP, George Galloway, is standing for the Workers Party of Britain, a party he founded after the 2019 general election. Galloway was expelled from Labour in 2003 for “bringing the party into disrepute” after a party tribunal found he had “incited Arabs to fight British troops” and “incited British troops to defy orders”. He has since been elected to parliament twice – in 2005 for his Respect party and 2012 as an independent – each time serving one term. 

The Workers Party of Britain, calls itself a socialist party that “defend[s] the achievements of the USSR, China, Cuba etc”.

The party is hostile to climate policies. Its website calls for “a much clearer debate on Net Zero” and argues that “a halt must also be made to the attempt to make working people pay for subsidies for large-scale green industrialisation”. 

Last July the party called for a Brexit-style referendum on net zero, a policy originally pushed by the right-wing Reform UK and led by its honorary president Nigel Farage. (Galloway and Farage have worked together in the past as part of the Aaron Banks-funded ‘Grassroots Out’ campaign for Brexit.)

Galloway has attacked net zero targets, advocated for clean coal extraction and spread misinformation about climate change.

In December, Galloway called for a net zero referendum in a post on the social media platform X. On his YouTube talk show in August 2022, Galloway spread the false claim that people would be forced to “eat insects” to tackle climate change, adding, “I think this net zero is one of the biggest hoaxes in modern politics.” He then took a swipe at climate activist Greta Thunberg, a regular target for climate deniers, calling net zero “a 14-year old schoolgirl leading grown men and women up the garden path.”

The following month, he again dismissed climate warnings from activists like Thunberg, arguing that the main climate risk came from NATO and the “military industrial complex”. He said: “We are facing climate catastrophe; not man made the likes of Greta Thunberg talks about, but through our own governments.”   

Galloway has also called for more fossil fuel extraction. In an X post in March 2022, a month after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Galloway wrote: “Britain needs to ice its [Net] Zero fantasy, step up its oil exploitation [and] invest in peaceful nuclear energy and seek to re-harvest the 1,000 years of coal under our feet employing clean-coal technology. Our Energy policy is hopelessly unbalanced.”

From 2008 to 2013, Galloway worked as a presenter for Press TV, the English-language channel run by the Iranian government. From 2013 to 2015 Galloway was paid £100,000 to present a show on RT (Russia Today), Russia’s equivalent. Both countries are major oil and gas producers. The channels have since had their broadcasting licences revoked by Ofcom for breaking its rules (Galloway’s broadcasts were not referenced in the ruling). 

Paul Ellison – Conservative Party

Little is known about the climate views of Conservative candidate Paul Ellison, who has been dubbed “Mr Rochdale” in the local press.

According to a favourable profile in Rochdale Online, Ellison has been active in the local community protecting green spaces, and is credited with winning Rochdale recognition by the Royal Horticultural Society In Bloom awards. 

He does not appear to have commented publicly about climate change. 

Azhar Ali – Independent (formerly Labour Party)

Newly independent candidate Azhar Ali criticised the government’s U-turns on net zero in September, accusing the Prime Minister of “playing to the climate change deniers in his own party”. 

He doesn’t appear to have commented publicly about Labour’s weakening of its own net zero plans. Earlier this month, the party dropped its pledge to invest £28 billion per year in green measures, cutting its spending plans by 75 percent to £23.7 billion in total. Labour says it will still  keep to its target to decarbonise the UK’s power grid by 2030.

The party opposes new North Sea exploration, but supports unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology on existing rigs. Earlier this month, Labour leader Keir Starmer said current pipelines would “continue for decades”. 

In October 2016, Ali attacked plans to introduce fracking for shale gas in Lancashire, saying on Twitter (now X): “Conservative government gives green light to the ‘rape’ of our environment.”

Iain Donaldson – Liberal Democrats

Lib Dem candidate Iain Donaldson has said he wants to hold the government to account on “water companies polluting the rivers with filthy sewage”, among other issues. In a 2017 tweet he criticised the then U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. 

Donaldson was one of eleven of the party’s 15 MPs who voted against the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill this week, while four abstained. The Liberal Democrats propose moving the net zero target forward five years to 2045 and support large investments in renewable energy.

A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said Donaldson had opposed the oil and gas bill, which “fails to take vital steps to grow the UK renewable energy sector and reduce energy bills, and fails to form a coherent path to net zero”.

“Iain wants to see the de facto moratorium on onshore wind farms lifted,” they added, “and allow the expansion of the cheapest form of energy to drive down bills in this cost of living crisis, and reduce our emissions helping to slow climate change.”

Mark Coleman – Independent

After dropping its own candidate, the Green Party has urged its members to back Reverend Mark Coleman, who has put climate at the forefront of his campaign.

Twice arrested for climate protest, Coleman was sentenced in April 2023 to five and half weeks in prison for blocking the M25 and other roads with campaign group Insulate Britain. 

Just Stop Oil has also asked its supporters to back Coleman. In a statement, the climate protest group said he is “the only candidate in the Rochdale by-election worth voting for”.

In a campaign blurb for local news outlet Rochdale Online, Coleman calls for “radical action on climate right now to stand any chance of a safe and stable future”. 

All candidates named in this article were contacted for comment.

 Additional reporting by Phoebe Cooke.

Adam Barnett - new white crop
Adam Barnett is DeSmog's UK News Reporter. He is a former Staff Writer at Left Foot Forward and BBC Local Democracy Reporter.

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