Labour withdraws support for Rochdale candidate after Israel remarks

132627580 asharali
Azhar Ali

Labour says it has “withdrawn support” for Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali after his comments on Israel.

The BBC understands Mr Ali has been suspended from Labour pending an investigation.

The party said the decision was taken after “new information about further comments” by Mr Ali came to light. Earlier on Monday, Labour had defended standing by him as a candidate.

It is too late for the party to replace Mr Ali as its candidate.

The decision means that Mr Ali will remain on the ballot as the Labour candidate for Rochdale, but if he is elected he will sit as an independent MP or join another party.

It is also highly unlikely that Mr Ali would be selected by Labour to fight the forthcoming general election.

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

After the comments came to light, Mr Ali apologised “to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments”.

Labour’s National Campaign Coordinator Pat McFadden said Mr Ali was suspended after “more comments” came to light.

It is unclear what was said in the new comments but it is understood to be further remarks made at the same meeting.

Mr McFadden said “the fact you have got a very rare circumstances where a political party is withdrawing support for a candidate after nominations have closed” showed Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer was serious about “routing antisemitism out of the Labour party”.

Labour has faced intense pressure since the remarks surfaced, with widespread condemnation from party members and political rivals.

Withdrawing support for Mr Ali will come as a blow to Labour, who had initially stood by him as the candidate to take over as MP for Rochdale after the death Sir Tony Lloyd.

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

Shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds had also been sent out to defend Labour’s decision to back Mr Ali on Monday morning.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the comments were “completely and utterly unacceptable” but suggested Mr Ali understood the “gravity of the offence that has been caused” and had “unreservedly apologised”.

‘Worst of all worlds’

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak accused Labour of only withdrawing support for Mr Ali due to “enormous media pressure”.

“That’s not principled”, Mr Sunak said.

Labour’s decision will add an extra layer of uncertainty to the outcome of the by-election on Thursday, 29 February.

Also running 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. Paul Ellison, a local business owner and campaigner, is standing for the Conservatives, while Iain Donaldson will represent the Liberal Democrats.

Guy Otten’s name will appear on the ballot paper for the Green Party, but Mr Otten announced he would be stepping down from the party after comments came to light in which he criticised Palestinians and Islam.

A spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism said Labour’s decision to withdraw support was “the worst of all worlds”.

“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,” the spokesperson added.

“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.”

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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