Azhar Ali: Labour defends standing by Rochdale by-election candidate

1 week ago 23

Labour candidate for Rochdale, Azhar AliImage source, PA Media

Image caption,

Azhar Ali issued an apology after his comments were published

By Kate Whannel

Political reporter, BBC News

Labour has defended standing by its candidate in the Rochdale by-election, despite his remarks about Israel.

Shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds told the BBC Azhar Ali's comments were "completely and utterly unacceptable".

However, he said the prospective MP understood the "gravity of the offence that has been caused" and had "unreservedly apologised".

The Conservatives are urging Labour to suspend Mr Ali from the party and stop campaigning for him in Rochdale.

Party chair Richard Holden said: "If Labour won't do that, the public will see that Labour is happy to run antisemitic candidates to attract racist votes and is therefore unfit to play a leading role in our nation's affairs."

It is too late for Labour to withdraw Mr Ali as their candidate and replace him with someone else as the deadline passed on 2 February.

Mr Thomas-Symonds confirmed Labour would continue to campaign for Mr Ali in Rochdale, - who he said had "fallen for a conspiracy theory" - but that there was a need to "do a tremendous amount of work to rebuild trust with the Jewish community".

He pointed to comments from former MP Louise Ellman, who has backed Mr Ali.

Dame Louise quit Labour in 2019 over a "growth of antisemitism" in the party, but re-joined in 2021, saying she was "confident" party leader Sir Keir Starmer was tackling the issue.

On Sunday, she wrote on X, that Mr Ali's comments had been "out of character".

"I have known Azhar for over twenty years and he consistently supported me when I was subjected to antisemitic attacks.

"He should now have the opportunity to work with the Jewish community to restore the loss of trust his actions have caused."

Image source, PA Media

Image caption,

Louise Ellman, who rejoined Labour in 2021, defended the Rochdale candidate

Mike Katz, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, said: "Azhar Ali's comments are totally reprehensible, but this close to polling day, electoral law says he will be Labour's candidate, whatever Starmer says or does now.

"Fact is, alternative in Rochdale is George Galloway. Giving him a parliamentary platform to spew hate and sow division will harm the Jewish community far more than electing Ali."

Mr Galloway, broadcaster and former Labour and Respect MP, is also running in the Rochdale by-election for the Workers Party of Britain.

He has said the main focus of his campaign will be calling for a resolution to the conflict in Gaza. He has been contacted for a comment.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews said: "Were it not too late to do so, we would have called on Labour to replace Mr Ali as a candidate.

"It is clear to us that Mr Ali is not apologising out of a genuine sense of remorse."

Image source, PA Media

Image caption,

Keir Starmer has faced criticism from members of his own party over his position on the Gaza-Israel conflict

In the recording, which the BBC has not heard, Mr Ali is alleged to have told a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party: "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."

After the Mail on Sunday published details of the recording, Mr Ali issued an apology stating that 7 October had been "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 antisemitism".

The Lancashire County councillor said he wished to "urgently apologise to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments".

Asked if the comments reflected a wider problem with party members, Mr Thomas-Symonds told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We've got, as I understand it, a short clip from a meeting, so I think it would be unfair to draw a wider conclusion in that way."

Labour's deputy national campaign co-ordinator and MP Ellie Reeves told the BBC's Westminster Hour: "The remarks are appalling, they do not represent the view of the Labour Party and It is really important that he now does everything he can, having made that full apology and retracted the comments that he made, that he now rebuilds trust in that community."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has come under pressure from some in his own party over his stance on the Israel-Gaza war.

In November last year, 10 Labour MPs resigned their frontbench roles over the party's reluctance to call for an immediate ceasefire in the region. More than 60 councillors have quit the party over the issue.

Labour has hardened its stance, calling for a "sustainable ceasefire" which Sir Keir has said requires the release of hostages held in Gaza and an increase in humanitarian aid.

Last week, the party's shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood told the BBC's Political Thinking with Nick Robinson that among Muslim voters "there has been a sense of a loss of trust" adding: "I think that that needs to be rebuilt."

The Rochdale by-election was triggered by the death of Labour MP Tony Lloyd. Labour is defending a majority in the constituency of nearly 10,000.

The by-election will be held on 29 February.

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