Labor has withdrawn its support for Azhar Ali, its candidate in the Rochdale by-election, just days before voters go to the polls in a key test for Keir Starmer's party.
Senior Labor MPs and members had urged leaders to confirm that Ali would be sanctioned if he won the by-election, as comments he made shortly after the October 7 attacks surfaced over the weekend . In it, he suggested that Israel had deliberately relaxed its security after warnings of an imminent threat.
They expressed concern over the leaders' continued support for Ali, saying it marked a “huge and disappointing shift” from Starmer's pledges to adopt “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism and all forms of racism.
On Monday evening, the Daily Mail approached Labor with further comments Ali had made, prompting the party to withdraw its support. Under electoral law, Labor cannot replace Ali with another candidate because the deadline has passed on February 2. He will stand as a Labor candidate on the ballot, but if elected he will not have a party whip and will sit as an independent MP.
Union sources said Rochdale activists were ordered to stop leafleting and social media activity in Ali's name at 5.30pm – an instruction that came from party headquarters.
A local Labor insider says some activists will seriously consider throwing their support behind Simon Danzcuk, the disgraced former Labor MP for Rochdale who was suspended from the party after sending inappropriate messages to a teenager. “Simon is perhaps the best way to keep [George Galloway, who is running as a Workers party candidate in the byelection] outside,” a source said. “It’s the devil and the deep blue sea.”
Danzcuk, who represents the populist Reform Party, told the Guardian that Labor should now remove posters and tear up leaflets supporting Ali, and ensure that their activists no longer campaign for him.
“Labour under Keir Starmer campaigned for someone with anti-Semitic views,” he said. “The party must completely dissociate itself from this candidate. If the party appears to tacitly support it, it will be a shameful situation.”
Danzcuk's campaign will now focus on stopping Galloway, he said. “My campaign will be about telling the electorate that they will not want an MP who prioritizes Palestine over Rochdale. If elected, I will prioritize Rochdale over Palestine.”
Galloway, who is focusing on Rochdale's large Pakistani and Kashmiri Muslim community for votes, is expected to benefit from the row, with some local campaigners saying Ali's suspension makes him the favorite to win.
The veteran campaigner, who previously served as MP for Respect and Work, called on voters to help put the plight of Gaza residents on the map by voting for him. Any prospect that he could return to Parliament will dismay some in the country. Jewish community. In 2014, he called for Bradford to become an “Israel-free zone”.
Ali apologized after a recording was leaked to the Mail on Sunday in which he was heard saying: “The Egyptians say they warned Israel 10 days earlier… The Americans warned them a day before.” [that] … Something is happening. They deliberately suppressed security, they allowed… this massacre which gives them the green light to do whatever they want.
Lisa Nandy, the shadow international development minister, and Anneliese Dodds, the shadow women and equalities secretary, were campaigning for Ali in the constituency at the weekend. Shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds told BBC Radio 4's Today program that he believed Ali had fallen “into the trap of an online conspiracy theory” and that he understood the “seriousness of the offense that was caused”.
One MP told the Guardian: “This came far too late. Continued support from leaders could further open the floodgates, allowing many more to think they can escape anti-Semitism if they posed with banners calling for an end to anti-Semitism without having to pay a reckoning .”
Another senior MP added: “What he said crossed the threshold of what is acceptable and if he were a Labor MP it would require the suspension of the whip if recent cases are any guide. »
It is understood that Ali has also been suspended from the Labor Party, pending an investigation. “Following new information on further comments made by Azhar Ali revealed today, the Labor Party has withdrawn its support for Azhar Ali as a candidate in the Rochdale by-election,” a Labor spokesperson said .
“Keir Starmer has transformed the Labor Party in such a way that it is unrecognizable from the party of 2019. We understand that these are very unusual circumstances, but it is essential that any candidate put forward by the Labor Party fully represents its objectives and its values. Since nominations are now closed, Azhar Ali cannot be replaced as a candidate.
Rishi Sunak made a direct reference to the scandal during an interview with GB News, accusing Starmer of standing by the politician and having “no principles at all”.
“So no, the Labor Party hasn't changed,” he said during an hour-long question-and-answer session with voters. “It’s a scam.”
A spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “Sir Keir Starmer has erased an otherwise quite admirable book and given the public reason to doubt the seriousness of his promise to root out antisemitism 'at its roots' within the Labor Party.
“People will have to judge for themselves whether the additional comments reported by Azhar Ali are really worse than the comments already reported. Rather than seeming like a decision in principle, Labour's withdrawal of support for its candidate at this late stage seems as timely as the failure of its attempt to defend him.
“It’s the worst of all worlds for Labor.”
Last year, Martin Forde KC, Starmer's lead lawyer investigating Labor's culture, criticized the leadership for promising to take a “zero tolerance” approach to anti-Semitism and all other forms of racism without having “transparent systems” in place. .
Calling for independent leadership to oversee Labour's disciplinary processes, which has since been rejected, Forde said at the time: “I think part of the reason factionalism has arisen around this is because there is a perception that different groups are treated differently. »
Campaigners in Rochdale spoke of their shock at Ali's remarks, saying he was known to be an ally and supportive of stamping out anti-Semitism within the party. They believe this is why the leaders treated him sympathetically.
Labor MP Kate Osamor was suspended in January for saying Gaza should be remembered as a genocide on Holocaust Remembrance Day, while Andy McDonald lost the whip in October for using the controversial phrase “between the river and the sea” during a pro-Palestine Rally rally.