Labour defends not suspending Rochdale candidate over Israel comments

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Labour has defended its decision not to suspend the party’s candidate in the Rochdale by-election after he sparked an antisemitism dispute by claiming Israel had allowed Hamas to attack on October 7.

Sir Keir Starmer’s team fear that if Azhar Ali were to be suspended, it could help the rival campaign of pro-Palestinian candidate and former Labour MP George Galloway, fuelling community tensions.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow Cabinet Office minister, said Ali had fallen for a conspiracy theory that Israel had deliberately relaxed its guard ahead of the Hamas attacks to give it a pretext to assault Gaza.

“Councillor Ali has apologised unreservedly, he’s retracted those remarks, and he’s also shown a sense of the gravity of the offence that has been caused,” Thomas-Symonds told the BBC.

He said Ali recognised “the need now to do tremendous amounts of work to rebuild trust with the Jewish community”, adding: “So it’s for those reasons that he hasn’t been suspended.”

The by-election in Rochdale, north-west England, will take place on February 29 and it is now too late for Labour to remove Ali’s name from the ballot paper because nominations closed at the beginning of the month.

But there is now a debate inside the party over the extent to which Starmer and senior Labour figures will actively campaign for Ali in Rochdale and what Labour will do if he wins the contest.

Asked whether Ali, if victorious, would take the Labour whip in the House of Commons and be the party’s candidate at the general election, Starmer’s office declined to comment.

Ali had told a meeting of Labour members soon after the October 7 attack that Israel “deliberately took the security off”, according to a recording first reported by the Mail on Sunday.

“They allowed . . . that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want,” he added. Ali has apologised for the comments.

The Conservative party has called on Starmer to suspend Ali from Labour and to withdraw campaign support. Michael Gove, housing secretary, said: “Keir Starmer can’t continue to support this candidacy.”

Labour has previously suspended MPs over comments about the Israel-Hamas conflict and taken tough action to dispel claims that the party had tolerated antisemitism.

Last month, leftwing Labour MP Kate Osamor was suspended by the party for listing the war in Gaza among recent examples of genocide in a message about Holocaust Memorial Day. She apologised for the comment.

Jeremy Corbyn, former Labour leader, has been blocked from standing for the party at the next election after claiming that the scale of antisemitism in Labour during his time at the helm was “dramatically overstated”.

In a sign that the opposition party is trying to shore up Ali, former Labour MP Dame Louise Ellman, who quit the party over alleged antisemitism during Corbyn’s leadership, spoke up for the candidate.

Ellman, who has subsequently rejoined Labour, said: “I have known Azhar for over 20 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,” she added.

Bookmaker William Hill has Labour at 4/11 to win the seat, which fell vacant after the death last month of Labour MP Tony Lloyd, with Galloway, who is standing for the Workers party, at 2-1.


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