Keir Starmer has been urged to confirm disciplinary action for Labour’s Rochdale byelection candidate, Azhar Ali, if he becomes an MP, after he apologised for comments made about the Israel-Gaza conflict.
Some Labour MPs and members have voiced their concern at the leadership’s continued support of Ali and his campaign, saying it marks a “huge and disappointing shift” from Starmer’s promises of taking a “zero-tolerance” to antisemitism, and all forms of racism.
Ali, an adviser to the last Labour government on anti-extremism who worked for the Home Office from 2005 to 2010, sparked dismay and anger within the party on Sunday as comments he had made soon after the 7 October attacks surfaced. In them, he suggested Israel had deliberately relaxed security after warnings of an imminent threat.
“The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel 10 days earlier … Americans warned them a day before [that] … there’s something happening,” Ali was heard saying in a recording obtained by the Mail on Sunday. “They deliberately took the security off, they allowed … that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want.”
A frontbencher told the Guardian: “The leadership’s continued support could open the floodgates, allowing many others to think they can get away with antisemitism if they have posed with banners calling for an end to antisemitism without facing a reckoning.
“The leadership must remove the whip from him if he wins and say they will conduct an investigation.”
Another senior MP added: “What he said passes the threshold of what is acceptable and if he was a Labour MP would necessitate suspension of the whip if recent cases are a guide. So there needs to be indication of future action.
“I know there’s a political argument about [George Galloway, who is running as a Workers party candidate in the byelection], however going back to EHRC politics cannot prejudice how we deal with antisemitism issues.”
One Labour MP acknowledged the leadership’s difficult position and suggested Starmer was picking the “lesser of two evils”, adding: “Yes, Azhar Ali’s comments were bad. Way worse than Kate Osamor’s comments, but Galloway in parliament would be so much worse for the Jewish community.”
They said Labour’s handling of the issue “proves that Labour runs its disciplinary process down factional lines”.
Last year, Martin Forde KC, the senior lawyer commissioned by Starmer to investigate the Labour party’s culture, criticised the leadership for vowing to take a “zero-tolerance” approach to antisemitism and all other forms of racism without having “transparent systems in place”.
Calling for an independent directorate to oversee Labour’s disciplinary processes, which has since been rejected, Forde said at the time: “I think part of the reason that factionalism has arisen around this is because there is a perception that different groups are treated differently.”
Senior party activists have sought to justify the leadership’s reasoning for standing by Ali, citing his “sincere and full apology”.
“When you look at his apology and his track record on stamping out antisemitism you can see his apology is sincere,” one said.
Activists in Rochdale have told of their shock at Ali’s remarks, saying he was known for being an ally and supportive of rooting out antisemitism from the party. They believe this is why the leadership has treated him with sympathy.
Osamor remains on suspension alongside Andy McDonald, who lost the whip in October for using the controversial phrase “between the river and the sea” at a pro-Palestine rally.
Labour insiders will hope the row will go unnoticed by voters. In Rochdale, however, Graham and Susan Whitehead, 73 and 74, called Ali’s comment “completely unwarranted”.
“We certainly wouldn’t vote for him,” says Graham. “We’ve not voted for Labour before. We’ve voted for various other parties but not for Labour.”
In the Milkstone and Deeplish ward, which is 72% Muslim according to the 2021 census, Razia Shamin, a lifelong Labour voter, said she was “disappointed”.
“I moved here during the 1960s, and have been canvassing for the Labour party since 1966,” she says. “However, this time I am disappointed because of how the Labour leader is with the Israel issue. I’m really annoyed at him, he’s not changing his view at all.”
A spokesperson for the grassroots leftwing group Momentum said: “It is equally clear that Labour’s whip & selection processes are neither independent nor fair. The Labour Leadership is sacrificing anti-racism for political gain – and achieving neither.”
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.