- By Sam Francis
- Political reporter, BBC News
Labour has withdrawn support for Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali over comments he apparently made at a meeting.
The Daily Mail published a recording apparently of Mr Ali blaming Jewish media figures for fuelling criticism against a pro-Palestinian Labour MP.
It means Labour will not have a candidate on the ballot sheet as it is too late to replace him. Mr Ali could still be elected as an independent MP.
He has been approached for comment.
Labour had spent days defending Mr Ali as a candidate after the Mail on Sunday published comments from Mr Ali, claiming Israel had “allowed” the Hamas attack.
Mr Ali subsequently apologised “to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments”.
On Monday evening, the Daily Mail published a second recording, allegedly of Mr Ali, blaming “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for the suspension of Andy McDonald from the Labour Party.
McDonald was suspended last year 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.”
The person on the recording goes on to say Israel planned to “get rid of [Palestinians] from Gaza” and “grab” the land.
He also appears to boast about preventing Israeli flags being flown from local public buildings after the deadly attack by Hamas gunmen on 7 October.
Labour’s National Campaign Coordinator Pat McFadden said Mr Ali was suspended after “more comments” came to light.
Mr McFadden said “the fact you have got 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 “rooting antisemitism out of the Labour party”.
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.
It is also highly unlikely that Mr Ali – a Lancashire County Councillor – would be selected by Labour to fight the forthcoming general election.
A Labour spokesperson said: “Keir Starmer has changed Labour so that it is unrecognisable from the party of 2019… it is vital that any candidate put forward by Labour fully represents its aims and values.”
Labour has faced intense pressure since Mr Ali’s remarks on Israel first surfaced, with widespread condemnation from party members and political rivals.
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”.
Labour’s decision to withdraw support from Mr Ali 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 the 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.”
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.
In recent months, Labour has suspended two of its MPs from the party for comments related to the conflict – including Mr McDonald.
In January, Kate Osamor had the party whip removed after saying Gaza should be remembered as genocide in a post about Holocaust Memorial Day.
Israel declared war on Hamas after the group led an attack on communities inside Israel, killing more than 1,200 people.
Since then, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, at least 28,340 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 68,000 injured as Israel launched missiles and ground operations into the Gaza Strip in response.
William Turner is a seasoned U.K. correspondent with a deep understanding of domestic affairs. With a passion for British politics and culture, he provides insightful analysis and comprehensive coverage of events within the United Kingdom.