Keir Starmer has said he made the “tough decision” to ditch Labour‘s Rochdale by-election candidate over remarks about Israel and Jewish people.
Azhar Ali was finally ditched by the party after two days of criticism when it emerged he had lashed out at “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters”. Labour announced it was withdrawing its support for the Lancashire councillor “following new information” last night.
It came shortly before a recording was released of remarks Mr Ali made in which he accused Israel of a “land grab” in Gaza. The candidate, who was selected to stand following the death of veteran Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd, has been suspended from the party pending an investigation.
Labour originally stood by him after he apologised for claiming Israel let Hamas carry out the October 7 attacks as a pretext for war. In a recording obtained by the Mail, Mr Ali said Labour MP Andy McDonald “shouldn’t have been suspended” for using the controversial phrase “from the river to the sea”.
Mr Starmer, speaking while campaigning in Wellingborough today, said: “I took decisive action it is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during the course of a by-election, it’s a tough decision but a necessary decision.” Asked if others who were present at the October meeting where Mr Ali made the remarks could face action, he said a “full investigation” would take place.
Mr Ali won’t have Labour support after the remarks come to light (
Image: Manchester Evening News)
Pressed on who he would recommend voters in Rochdale support in the upcoming by-election he said: “Voters in Rochdale will have to determine who they vote for but I’m not prepared to put forward a Labour candidate unless I think that candidate is fit to be a Labour MP.”
The Labour leader has come under fire over his handling of the row. Martin Forde KC, who led a 2022 report that found different factions within the Labour Party had weaponised anti-Semitism, said removing Mr Ali 36 hours after the first allegations emerged “appears pretty shambolic”. He claimed there was a “disparity in treatment” of allegations of anti-Semitism.
Mr Forde told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m aware from discussions with some of the MPs within the party – who might be described as left-leaning – that they feel that when it comes to disciplinary action taken against them then things move rather slowly, but if you’re in the right faction of the party, as it were, then things are dealt with either more leniently or more swiftly.
The decision to suspend Mr Ali came after intense pressure which saw Labour initially claim he had been taken in by an “online conspiracy theory”. Labour’s national campaign coordinator Pat McFadden said the party acted because “new information and more comments have come to light which meant that we had to look at this situation again”.
Labour MP Steve McCabe admitted the affair is “embarrassing” for his party. He told GB News: “It’s obviously difficult and embarrassing for the Labour Party. But I mean I think when you are confronted with a situation like this, you don’t have a choice and you have to do what you believe to be right.”
He went on: “I think the issue is that conditionally people were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt that he said his apology in good faith. But I think with the further revelations it was too late and that was just the end of it in the end.”
It has been seized on by the Tories, with Rishi Sunak telling GB News viewers on Monday at an event in County Durham, said it was a “con” to suggest Labour has been reformed.
He said: “Keir Starmer has been running around for the last year trying to tell everybody ‘Okay, Labour Party’s changed’. Well, look what just happened in Rochdale.” He accused Sir Keir of having “stood by and sent cabinet ministers to support him, until literally five minutes before I walked on tonight, under enormous media pressure, has decided to change his mind on principle”.
If elected on February 29, Mr Ali will sit as an independent MP and will not receive the party whip. The decision means that Labour will also need to find a new candidate to contest the seat at the upcoming general election.