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Starmer suspends Labour Rochdale by-election candidate after anti-Israel comments

Labour has withdrawn its support for its candidate in the Rochdale by-election after he claimed Israel deliberately allowed the 7 October attacks.

Citing “further comments” made by Azhar Ali that had come to light, the party said it was pulling its support for Mr Ali and it is understood he has been suspended from the party pending an investigation.

The decision leaves Labour without a candidate in the upcoming by-election, and leaves open the possibility that it could hand the Conservatives or Respect Party leader George Galloway with an unlikely victory.

A Labour party spokeswoman said: “Following new information about further comments made by Azhar Ali coming to light today, the Labour party has withdrawn its support for Azhar Ali as our candidate in the Rochdale by-election.

“Keir Starmer has changed Labour so that it is unrecognisible from the party of 2019.

“We understand that these are highly unusual circumstances but it is vital that any candidate put forward by Labour fully represents its aims and values.”

The party admitted that as nominations have closed, Mr Ali will not be replaced by Labour.

ROCHDALE, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07: Labour candidate for Rochdale, Azhar Ali launches his by-election campaign on February 07, 2024 in Rochdale, England. Azhar Ali announced his five pledges should he be elected as Rochdale's MP, accompanied by Labour's Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham. The by-election for the Rochdale constituency scheduled for 29 February was triggered by the death of Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd on 17 January, 2024. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Azhar Ali at the launch of his by-election campaign on 7 February (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The decision came amid growing unrest within the party over the leadership’s initial decision to stand by Mr Ali after he apologised following a recording of him in a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party appeared to suggest that he believed Israel deliberately lowered its guard to use the Hamas terror attacks as a pretext to invade Gaza.

The party leadership initially decided to back their candidate, claiming Mr Ali “fell for an online conspiracy” and insisting he is not antisemitic.

But the decision to stick with Mr Ali was met with anger within Labour ranks.

i was told that MPs and activists were calling off trips to the constituency and refusing to campaign for the candidate, with one MP saying “people are just not turning up and they’re cancelling their visits”.

A shadow minister said they wanted to “suspend him and the campaign now”, in a bid to find a “rapprochement with the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies”.

It came amid concerns that there would be a “drip drip” of stories coming out about the candidate between now and when local voters go to the polls.

Sources told i that the Labour leadership has made the decision to stick with Mr Ali because the party views it as a lesser evil than allowing George Galloway, who is standing as leader of the Respect Party, to be elected.

There are fears that Mr Galloway, backed by a strong Muslim contingent, will seek to turn the by-election into a “referendum on Gaza”.

Starmer has taken a strong line when it comes to rooting out antisemitism from the Labour party, viewing it as essential for winning back voters’ trust.

The Labour leadership has suspended MPs for what some party insiders believed to be smaller infractions, including most recently Kate Osamor, who referenced “genocide” in Gaza, while signing a book on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Defending the party’s initial decision to back Mr Ali, shadow Cabinet minister Nick Thomas-Symonds told LBC: “The conspiracy theory is one of a range of antisemitic conspiracy theories, nobody is shying away from that. He is saying – and I take this at entirely at face value – that he fell for an online conspiracy theory.

“I don’t believe he is antisemitic and that’s why we continue to support him.

“He is someone that very respected colleagues have known over decades… point to his record of standing up against antisemitism, therefore it is out of character.”

Azhar Ali was selected as the Labour candidate for Rochdale on January 27, beating Paul Waugh, who stepped aside as i’s chief political commentator, and Wigan councillor Nazia Rehman.

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