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14 February 2024

How indecision turned toxic for Labour in Rochdale

Dithering over Azhar Ali’s by-election campaign has reignited the anti-Semitism row and damaged Keir Starmer’s public image.

By Andrew Marr

The Labour Party’s handling of its former Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali has been a humiliating story of self-sabotage and fatal indecision that will cause the party problems for a long time to come. This story is not over. But – as we will see – none of that is what matters most.

Let’s begin with the immediate politics of what happened in Rochdale, a deprived former mill town just north-east of Manchester – and the home, as it happens, of Mrs Gillian Duffy, with whom Gordon Brown had his famous “bigoted woman” mic-not-off moment during the 2010 election campaign.

What caused the initial trouble was an anti-Semitic remark by Ali, who was recorded telling a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party about the 7 October Hamas attacks: “The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel ten 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.”

Since some argue this is not anti-Semitic but the reporting of widespread suspicions about why warnings were not acted upon promptly and decisively – a controversy very much alive in Israel too – let us be clear. Ali is saying that Israel’s government deliberately allowed Hamas to rape, butcher, torture and kidnap its own citizens, in order to then attack Gaza. That would be a devilish, inhumane plot, would it not? It feeds on an ancient trope that Jews conspire to allow their enemies an apparent “win”, and collude in their own oppression, for wider nefarious purposes. That is indeed utterly anti-Semitic and repulsive. It is the equivalent of saying that Palestinian leaders gleefully celebrate the death of their own children because it mobilises world opinion against Israel. It is deliberately dehumanising.

Had a Labour MP used Ali’s words, there wouldn’t have been a second’s hesitation before they were expelled. Keir Starmer has spent the past two years remorselessly policing just this kind of hatred in the party.

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Yet this time, nothing happened. Ali apologised, was publicly chastised by frontbenchers, then allowed to carry right on. Why? Electoral law meant he could not be replaced as the official Labour candidate on the ballot. Too late: the only option would have been to publicly repudiate him, call off the canvassers and effectively stop fighting the by-election.

Embarrassingly for everyone, even such a withdrawal of party support might not stop Ali winning. In an electorate of 82,000, 24,000 are postal voters who have already been bombarded with Labour literature.

But if the Ali campaign crumbles, that leaves the way open for George Galloway, the fedora-pated and entirely ego-free leader of the Workers Party of Britain; or Simon Danczuk, the equally self-effacing former Labour MP for Rochdale (indeed, he was the candidate when Gordon Brown made his visit there). Danczuk was suspended in 2015 after exchanging explicit messages with a 17-year-old girl. He is now married to a 29-year-old Rwandan beauty therapist, and is back on his old patch, standing for the hard-right Reform UK.

Rochdale, in short, is turning into a kind of grisly vaudeville. But it isn’t an amusing one and may have serious consequences.

The contest now looks to be dominated by Galloway and Danczuk. The former is a vehemently pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli leftist of great oratorical skill. He promises his victory would be not only “a shot across the bows” of Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak but would – get this –“send a shot across the whole world” and might, for good measure, pitch Britain into an early general election, presumably by humiliating Labour and encouraging Sunak.

Danczuk has been emphasising that he doesn’t merely represent Muslim voters but “all Rochdale” and has been reposting fiercely anti-Starmer material around asylum and immigration. I think we can see where this is going. Rochdale will now become an anti-Starmer hate-fest. We can begin to understand why the Labour leader was slow to liquidate his party’s candidacy.

Indeed, basic “due diligence” would have reassured Labour high command about Azhar Ali. He is the former leader of Pendle Council and opposition leader for Lancashire County Council; an OBE for services to the community; a director of the anti-extremism Sufi Muslim Council; a former adviser on extremism to Tony Blair; a self-proclaimed “dear friend” of the widely liked late Labour MP Tony Lloyd, whose death has caused this by-election.

Yes, he had been connected to a mosque that had hosted extremist speakers, but there were no personal red flags when party officials went through his record. He had worked on interfaith reconciliation. Louise Ellman, the Jewish Labour politician who left the party in horrible circumstances in 2019, and who has known Azhar Ali for more than 20 years, says he “consistently supported me when I was subjected to anti-Semitic attacks”. This is not a simple story, nor one whose handling by Starmer’s office should provoke too-easy derision. My suspicion is that Ali had been knocked off balance by the violence happening in Gaza, and the furious reaction to it among Muslim voters. There is viral social media coverage of him being ferociously harangued in a takeaway shop.

None of this makes his comments anything less than unacceptably anti-Semitic. The later-reported remarks, which finally persuaded Starmer to reverse his decision and cut Ali loose, were about “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” fuelling criticism of the pro-Palestinian Labour MP Andy McDonald, and boasts about banning Israeli flags.

Again, let us pause, and parse. There are a lot of prominent journalists of Jewish background. And there are also a lot of prominent journalists with a Muslim or Hindu background. There are some Scots. Observing this is one thing; highlighting it something entirely different and done always, or almost always, with malign intent.

What about the damage caused by that short but damaging delay in disavowing Ali? In Rochdale, I fear it will turn what was always going to be a dirty little by-election into a toxic community battle. Nationally, it has badly unsettled relations with potential Jewish supporters of Labour. It has made the leader and his team look dithery. It also deeply damages relations with Muslim voters who already fear the pitch is tilted against them: right now, Labour MPs cannot visit some mosques because they are made to feel unwelcome.

This week had promised to be one of the worst for Rishi Sunak during his time as Prime Minister. No longer. A bad smell from the north will hang over the results of the Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections even if Labour takes both seats; and if the party fails in either, a dangerous narrative for Starmer may then start to take hold. For after the defeat in Hartlepool in 2021, he knows very well how a single by-election result can change the story. And Galloway has been boasting about how, had he won just a slightly larger vote in the subsequent Batley and Spen by-election of that year, “Keir Starmer would no longer be leader of the Labour Party.”

And yet everything described above is somehow merely local, less important than the reminder that the events in Israel and Gaza – where 28,000 people have now died and where 1.4 million refugees are penned against the Egyptian border in Rafah – are driving huge numbers of British people almost mad with anger and mutual dislike. Relations between British Jews and British Muslims were bad after 7 October; they are much worse today.

As the IDF prepares a final assault, with Benjamin Netanyahu promising the tragic illusion of “absolute victory”, it feels impossible to imagine a peaceful or decent way out. The repercussions will be felt here. I’d very rarely quote George Galloway as an authority, but when he describes Rochdale as “tinder dry, waiting for a spark” I am afraid – very much afraid – he isn’t wrong.

[See also: How Labour can free itself from the tyranny of the bond market

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland