Rochdale: Keir Starmer in crisis after party withdraws support for candidate Azhar Ali after Israel comments

Tuesday 13 February 2024

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said on Monday evening that Mr Ali, who is understood to be suspended pending an investigation, had Labour’s backing withdrawn “following new information about further comments”.

Speaking to Talk Today, former Conservative advisor James Prince said: "I think it's the moment where the mask slips a little bit. You can say maybe it's same old Labour.

"I think it's fair to say that Starmer has done a reasonably good job given the cranks and loons we saw in the Corbyn years.

"These people were deeply antisemitic, racist, nasty people that the Corbyn project led into mainstream politics. Starmer is not that, but this shows that his grip on the party is not what it might be.

"Let's look at this candidate himself. Why did he say these disgusting things? Either he believes them himself, or he knew that it would get him the selection and get that support because so many people in that local labour party believe it?

"In my opinion, it's probably both, and that's deeply worrying."

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 withdraws its support for Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali after criticism of remarks about Israel

Labour MP says a party win at general election could have 'big implications' for Scotland and will 'do the public a great service'

Labour candidate Azhar Ali apologises for 'deeply offensive' Israel claims but will still run in Rochdale by-election

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.

Speaking to Talk Today, former Labour advisor Mike Buckley said: "Labour's selection process I know for a fact is incredibly robust, with long-winded and in depth due diligence procedures for all the candidates.

"For a lot of people, they have been told 'you're not appropriate to be a candidate, so you can't apply and you're not going to get on the long list.

"So I'm suprised genuinely that Azhar already got through as far as he did."

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.

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”.

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.

The candidates known to be standing in the Rochdale by-election scheduled for February 29th are: Azhar Ali- Labour, Simon Danczuk - Reform UK, George Galloway - Workers Party, Guy Otten- Green Party, Paul Ellison - Conservative Party, Iain Donaldson - Liberal Democrats and Reverend Mark Coleman - Independent and Billy Howarth - Independent.

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