Azhar Ali: Labour defends standing by Rochdale by-election candidate

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Politics
Labour candidate for Rochdale, Azhar AliGetty Images

Labour has defended standing by its candidate in the Rochdale by-election, despite his remarks about Israel.

Shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds told the BBC Azhar Ali’s comments were “completely and utterly unacceptable”.

However, he said the prospective MP understood the “gravity of the offence that has been caused” and had “unreservedly apologised”.

The Conservatives are urging Labour to suspend Mr Ali from the party and stop campaigning for him in Rochdale.

Party chair Richard Holden said: “If Labour won’t do that, the public will see that Labour is happy to run antisemitic candidates to attract racist votes and is therefore unfit to play a leading role in our nation’s affairs.”

Mr Ali is alleged to have told a Labour party meeting that Israel had “allowed” the deadly attack by Hamas gunmen on 7 October.

It is too late for Labour to withdraw Mr Ali as their candidate and replace him with someone else as the deadline passed on 2 February.

Mr Thomas-Symonds confirmed Labour would continue to campaign for Mr Ali in Rochdale, who he said had “fallen for a conspiracy theory” but that there was a need to “do a tremendous amount of work to rebuild trust with the Jewish community”.

He pointed to comments from former MP Louise Ellman, who has backed Mr Ali.

Dame Louise quit Labour in 2019 over a “growth of antisemitism” in the party, but re-joined in 2021, saying she was “confident” party leader Sir Keir Starmer was tackling the issue.

On Sunday, she wrote on X, that Mr Ali’s comments had been “out of character”.

“I have known Azhar for over twenty years and he consistently supported me when I was subjected to antisemitic attacks.

“He should now have the opportunity to work with the Jewish community to restore the loss of trust his actions have caused.”

Louise Ellman

PA Media

Mike Katz, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, said: “Azhar Ali’s comments are totally reprehensible, but this close to polling day, electoral law says he will be Labour’s candidate, whatever Starmer says or does now.”

Mr Katz said that an alternative candidate was former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway, who is also running in the Rochdale by-election for the Workers Party of Britain, and that his election would “harm the Jewish community far more than electing Ali”.

Mr Galloway has said the main focus of his campaign will be calling for a resolution to the conflict in Gaza. He has been contacted for a comment.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews said: “Were it not too late to do so, we would have called on Labour to replace Mr Ali as a candidate.

“It is clear to us that Mr Ali is not apologising out of a genuine sense of remorse.”

Keir Starmer

PA Media

In the recording, which the BBC has not heard, Mr Ali is alleged to have told a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party: “The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel 10 days earlier… Americans warned them a day before [that] there’s something happening…

“They deliberately took the security off, they allowed… that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want.”

After the Mail on Sunday published details of the recording, Mr Ali issued an apology stating that 7 October had been “the greatest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust, and Jews in the UK and across the world are living in fear of rising antisemitism”.

The Lancashire County councillor said he wished to “urgently apologise to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments”.

Asked if the comments reflected a wider problem with party members, Mr Thomas-Symonds told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve got, as I understand it, a short clip from a meeting, so I think it would be unfair to draw a wider conclusion in that way.”

Labour’s deputy national campaign co-ordinator and MP Ellie Reeves told the BBC’s Westminster Hour: “The remarks are appalling, they do not represent the view of the Labour Party and it is really important that he now does everything he can, having made that full apology and retracted the comments that he made, that he now rebuilds trust in that community.”

In recent months, Labour has suspended two of its MPs from the party for comments related to the conflict.

In January, Kate Osamor had the party whip removed after saying Gaza should be remembered as genocide in a post about Holocaust Memorial Day. Last year, Andy McDonald was suspended after saying: “We will not rest until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty.”

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Keir Starmer’s Rochdale dilemma

Analysis by political correspondent Hannah Miller

Keir Starmer faces a dilemma over the Rochdale by-election, but he might just survive it.

Those who have fallen foul of Sir Keir’s red lines now shout hypocrisy, believing they have faced consequences for what they perceive as lesser crimes than Azhar Ali.

The left-wing campaign group Momentum says the Labour leadership is “actively targeting black and brown MPs for standing with Gaza amidst a humanitarian catastrophe”.

In Rochdale, George Galloway knows any dissent like that could be turned to his advantage.

Sir Keir can’t stop Mr Ali being his party’s candidate.

He could take away Labour support, weakening the party’s whole campaign and potentially increase Mr Galloway’s chances of a win. Or he allows the campaign to continue, at risk of undermining years of work winning the trust of Jewish people.

Neither option is appealing. But he will hope the trust he’s built with the Jewish community over the past four years will be strong enough to withstand this by-election storm.

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In November last year, 10 Labour MPs resigned their frontbench roles over the party’s reluctance to call for an immediate ceasefire in the region. More than 60 councillors have quit the party over the issue.

Labour has hardened its stance, calling for a “sustainable ceasefire” which Sir Keir has said requires the release of hostages held in Gaza and an increase in humanitarian aid.

Last week, the party’s shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood told the BBC’s Political Thinking with Nick Robinson that among Muslim voters “there has been a sense of a loss of trust” adding: “I think that that needs to be rebuilt.”

The Rochdale by-election was triggered by the death of Labour MP Tony Lloyd. Labour is defending a majority in the constituency of nearly 10,000.

The by-election will be held on 29 February.

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