Questions for Labour after support withdrawn for Rochdale candidate

The Labour leadership is facing questions after withdrawing the party’s support for its Rochdale by-election candidate, amid a storm of criticism of remarks he made about Israel.

Azhar Ali had apologised after he was recorded suggesting in a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party that Israel had taken the October 7 Hamas assault as a pretext to invade Gaza.

But a party spokesperson said on Monday evening that Mr Ali, who is understood to be suspended pending an investigation, had Labour’s backing withdrawn “following new information about further comments”.

According to a story published by the Daily Mail on Monday night, Mr Ali also said “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” were “giving crap” about MP Andy McDonald, who was suspended by Labour after he used the phrase “between the river and the sea” in a speech during a rally.

The paper also said the now-former Labour candidate claimed that Israel planned to “get rid of [Palestinians] from Gaza” and “grab” some of the land.

Labour had come under serious pressure after the previous remarks emerged, with the comments condemned by figures inside the party as well as by political opponents.

Sir Keir Starmer has sought to move his party on from the Corbyn era, which was overshadowed by controversies over antisemitism.

But the party leadership is now being pressed on why Mr Ali had not been immediately suspended after the comments emerged.

Labour recently suspended the MP Kate Osamor after she appeared to say the Gaza war should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Labour’s national campaign coordinator Pat McFadden told broadcasters the party acted because “new information and more comments have come to light which meant that we had to look at this situation again”.

A spokesperson said: “Keir Starmer has changed Labour so that it is unrecognisable from the party of 2019.

“We understand that these are highly unusual circumstances, but it is vital that any candidate put forward by Labour fully represents its aims and values.

“Given that nominations have now closed, Azhar Ali cannot be replaced as the candidate.”

Tony Lloyd death
The elction follows the death of Sir Tony Lloyd (Liam McBurney/PA)

The decision to withdraw backing for the candidate will come as a blow to the party, which had hoped to retain the seat following the death last month of sitting MP Sir Tony Lloyd.

Mr Ali, who is also a Lancashire County Councillor, apologised to the Jewish community and retracted his original remarks, which he described as “deeply offensive, ignorant and false”.

The PA news agency has contacted Mr Ali about the latest reported comments.

The decision to withdraw support for the candidate came the same day that shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds said Mr Ali had fallen “for an online conspiracy theory” and insisted Labour would “continue this campaign in Rochdale”.

Frontbenchers Lisa Nandy and Anneliese Dodds had been out campaigning for Mr Ali in the constituency at the weekend.

Rishi Sunak, speaking to GB News viewers on Monday at an event in County Durham, said it was a “con” to suggest Labour has been reformed.

He said: “Keir Starmer has been running around for the last year trying to tell everybody ‘Okay, Labour Party’s changed’. Well, look what just happened in Rochdale.”

He accused Sir Keir of having “stood by and sent cabinet ministers to support him, until literally five minutes before I walked on tonight, under enormous media pressure, has decided to change his mind on principle”.

“No principles at all,” he added.

Labour’s decision will add considerable uncertainty to the outcome of the by-election when voters go to the polls at the end of the month.

Also running in Rochdale are former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, now the Reform Party candidate, and George Galloway, of the Workers Party of Britain, who is campaigning against Labour’s stance on Gaza.

About 20% of the electorate and 30% of the population of the town are Asian, with polls nationally suggesting Labour’s vote could be hit by Asian people unhappy with the party over Palestine and its perceived support for Israel.

If elected, Mr Ali will sit as an independent MP and will not receive the party whip. The decision means that Labour will also need to find a new candidate to contest the seat at the upcoming general election.

A spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “Sir Keir Starmer has blotted an otherwise fairly admirable copybook and given the public reason to doubt the earnestness of his promise to tear antisemitism out ‘by its roots’ in Labour.

“People will have to judge for themselves whether the additional reported comments by Azhar Ali are really any worse than the comments that had already been reported.

“Rather than appearing as a principled decision, Labour’s withdrawal of support for its candidate at this late stage just looks as expedient as the failed attempt to defend him. It is the worst of all worlds for Labour.”

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