What did Azhar Ali say? Labour withdraws support from Rochdale candidate as Starmer says party 'has changed'
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On Monday evening, Labour withdrew its support from Ali in the upcoming election, who has been suspended pending an investigation. Ali apologised after he was recorded in a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party suggesting that Israel "deliberately allowed" the 7 October Hamas massacre as a pretext to invade Gaza.
Labour said it moved to end its backing of the candidate “following new information about further comments”. The party leadership is now being pressed on why Ali had not been immediately suspended after the comments emerged.
Starmer initially said that he had fallen for an "online conspiracy theory" and that it was "out of character" for him to be anti-Semitic. But what did Ali say and why did Starmer suspend him? Here's everything you need to know about the crisis engulfing Labour.
What did Azhar Ali say?
Ali, a county councillor in Lancashire, made the comments at a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party on 31 October, just over three weeks after Hamas fighters raided Israel and murdered more than 1,400 Jews. The Mail on Sunday reported that Ali said: "The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel 10 days earlier ... Americans warned them a day before [that] there's something happening.
"They deliberately took the security off, they allowed ... that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want."
The Mail then revealed further comments by Ali at the same meeting, which led to Labour withdrawing support. In the Mail's recording he appeared to blame "people in the media from certain Jewish quarters" for getting the whip withdrawn from Andy MacDonald. Stating that Jewish people control the media is a classic anti-Semitic trope.
He also said at the meeting: "Israel has that plan, which is to get rid of [the Palestinians] from Gaza, push them out ... and then they've got Gaza to themselves, and you know, they'll say because the security risks to Israel and the Jewish state, you know, we can't come back. So we've actually said that, in our letter, (this) is about a land grab." Ali later boasted about not flying the Israeli flag after the 7 October attack.
The county councillor has since apologised for his comments, saying: "I apologise unreservedly to the Jewish community for my comments which were deeply offensive, ignorant, and false. Hamas's horrific terror attack was the responsibility of Hamas alone, and they are still holding hostages who must be released.
"7 October was the greatest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust, and Jews in the UK and across the world are living in fear of rising anti-Semitism. I will urgently apologise to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments. The Labour Party has changed unrecognisably under Keir Starmer's leadership – he has my full support in delivering the change Britain needs."
What has Keir Starmer said?
Keir Starmer insisted that he has changed the Labour Party, which was riddled with accusations of anti-Semitism under his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. Speaking today (13 February) in Wellingborough, he said: "Certain information came to light over the weekend in relation to the candidate. There was a fulsome apology. Further information came to light yesterday calling for decisive action, so 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, a necessary decision, but when I say the Labour Party has changed under my leadership I mean it."
Starmer added: "Of course, any allegation will be fully investigated by the party, but the important thing is the decisive action that’s been taken to make it absolutely clear that this is a changed Labour Party."
However left-wing critics of the Starmer leadership accused him of showing inconsistency in the handling of the allegations. The party recently suspended the MP Kate Osamor after she appeared to say the Gaza war should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day, for which she later apologised.
Veteran MP Diane Abbott also had the whip withdrawn immediately after suggesting Jewish, Irish and Traveller people are not subject to racism “all their lives” in a letter to the Observer last year.
Who will be Labour's candidate in the Rochdale by-election?
As nominations have closed, Labour cannot choose a candidate to replace Ali in the Rochdale by-election on 29 February. The councillor will have his name on the voting slip as the Labour candidate, and he could well still be elected on that basis - in what is a safe seat.
As soon as he becomes an MP he will have the whip withdrawn, meaning he no longer is a member of Labour Parliamentary Party. He would then be an independent MP until the general election, which is expected to be in October or November, when Labour would put forward an alternative candidate - likely Paul Waugh the political journalist.
A party spokesperson 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 unrecognisable 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. Given that nominations have now closed, Azhar Ali cannot be replaced as the candidate.”
Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.