Labour has withdrawn its support for Azhar Ali, its candidate for this month’s Rochdale byelection, in the wake of controversial comments he made about the 7 October attacks on Israel.
In line with electoral law, Labour cannot replace Ali with another candidate because the deadline passed on 2 February. He will stand as a Labour candidate on the ballot paper, but if elected he will not hold the party whip and will sit as an independent MP.
Labour sources said that campaigners in Rochdale were told to stop leafleting and social media activity on Ali’s behalf at 5.30pm on Monday – an instruction that came from party HQ.
Senior party MPs and members had urged the leadership to confirm Ali would be disciplined if he won the byelection as comments he had made soon after the 7 October attacks surfaced over the weekend. In them, he suggested Israel had deliberately relaxed security after warnings of an imminent threat.
The Labour MPs and members voiced their concern at the leadership’s continued support of Ali, saying it marked a “huge and disappointing shift” from Starmer’s promises of taking a “zero-tolerance” approach to antisemitism and all forms of racism.
On Monday night, the Daily Mail approached Labour with more comments Ali had made, prompting the party to withdraw its support.
A local Labour insider said that some activists will seriously consider throwing their support behind Simon Danczuk, the disgraced former Labour MP for Rochdale who was suspended from the party after sending inappropriate messages to a teenager.
“Simon may be the best way of keeping [George Galloway, who is running as a Workers party candidate in the byelection] out,” a source said. “It’s the devil and the deep blue sea.”
Danczuk, who is standing for the populist Reform party, said that Labour should now take down posters and rip up leaflets supporting Ali, and ensure their activists no longer campaign for him.
“Labour under Keir Starmer has been campaigning for someone with antisemitic views,” he said. “The party must completely dissociate itself from this candidate. If the party appears to be tacitly supporting him, it will be a disgraceful state of affairs.”
Danczuk’s campaign will now concentrate on stopping Galloway, he said. “My campaign will be to tell the electorate that they will not want an MP who would prioritise Palestine over Rochdale. If elected, I will prioritise Rochdale over Palestine.”
Galloway, who is concentrating on Rochdale’s sizeable Pakistani and Kashmiri Muslim community for votes, is expected to benefit from the row, with some local activists saying that Ali’s suspension makes him favourite to win on 29 February.
The veteran campaigner, who has already been an MP for Respect and Labour, has appealed for voters to help put the plight of the people of Gaza on the map by voting him in.
Any prospect that he could enter parliament again will appal some in the Jewish community. In 2014, he called for Bradford to become an “Israel-free zone”.
Ali had apologised after a recording was leaked to the Mail on Sunday in which he was heard saying: “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.”
Lisa Nandy, the shadow international development minister, and Anneliese Dodds, the shadow women and equalities secretary, had been out campaigning for Ali in the constituency at the weekend.
The shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he believed Ali had fallen “for an online conspiracy theory” and he understood the “gravity of the offence that has been caused”.
A frontbencher said: “This came far too late. The leadership’s continued support could still open the floodgates, allowing many others to think they can get away with antisemitism if they have posed with banners calling for an end to antisemitism.”
Another senior MP added: “What he said passed the threshold of what is acceptable and, if he was a Labour MP, would necessitate suspension of the whip if recent cases are a guide.”
It is understood Ali has also been suspended from the Labour party, pending an investigation.
According to a story published by the Daily Mail on Monday night, Ali said “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” were “giving crap” about Andy McDonald, who was suspended by Labour after he used the controversial phrase “between the river and the sea” in a speech during a rally.
The paper also said the now-former Labour candidate claimed that Israel planned to “get rid of [Palestinians] from Gaza” and “grab” some of the land. It is thought he made the comments at the same meeting as the original story.
“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 byelection,” a Labour spokesperson said.
“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.”
Rishi Sunak made a direct reference to the scandal during a GB News interview, accusing Starmer of standing by the politician and having “no principles at all”.
“So no, the Labour party hasn’t changed,” he said during a one-hour Q&A with a live audience. “It’s a con.”
A spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “Sir Keir Starmer has blotted an otherwise fairly admirable copy book and given the public reason to doubt the earnestness of his promise to tear antisemitism out ‘by its roots’ in Labour.
“People will have to judge for themselves whether the additional reported comments by Azhar Ali are really any worse than the comments that had already been reported.
“Rather than appearing as a principled decision, Labour’s withdrawal of support for its candidate at this late stage just looks as expedient as the failed attempt to defend him. It is the worst of all worlds for Labour.”
Last year, Martin Forde KC, the senior lawyer commissioned by Starmer to investigate the Labour party’s culture, criticised the leadership for vowing to take a “zero-tolerance” approach to antisemitism and all other forms of racism without having “transparent systems in place”.
Calling for an independent directorate to oversee Labour’s disciplinary processes, which has since been rejected, Forde said at the time: “I think part of the reason that factionalism has arisen around this is because there is a perception that different groups are treated differently.”
Activists in Rochdale have told of their shock at Ali’s remarks, saying he was known for being an ally and supportive of rooting out antisemitism from the party. They believe this is why the leadership had treated him with sympathy.
Kate Osamor, a Labour MP, was suspended in January for saying Gaza should be remembered as a genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day, while McDonald lost the whip in October for telling a pro-Palestine rally: “We will not rest until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty.”