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12 February 2024

Keir Starmer’s Rochdale problem won’t go away

Having stuck by Azhar Ali following his anti-Semitic comments, the question now is what the party does if he wins.

By Freddie Hayward

Labour’s campaign for a tenth by-election victory in two years is not going to plan. Azhar Ali, its candidate for Rochdale, said Israel “allowed” Hamas’s 7 October attacks as cover for an attack on Gaza. While he made the comments last autumn, they were published in the Mail of Sunday yesterday. This has unleashed a flurry of condemnation and angst within the party. It’s too late to pick a new candidate, which means the leadership has to stand by its tarnished first choice.

Indeed, Labour still plans to campaign in the constituency in the two weeks before the 29 February election. Lisa Nandy was knocking doors with Ali yesterday and said he was someone “who has always stood up for people in Gaza”. The party is trying to strike an uneasy balance between condemning what Ali said without condemning his candidacy. Nick Thomas-Symonds, a shadow cabinet minister, disowned the comments on the media round this morning while emphasising that Ali had apologised. His line was that Ali fell for an online conspiracy theory and that these weren’t his real views.

The controversy reveals a dilemma for Keir Starmer that will not go away. His crackdown on those who diverted from the party line on Israel has irritated colleagues who think it has made a mistake by not calling for an immediate ceasefire. At the same time, strategists are desperate to entrench the perception that Starmer has changed the party since becoming leader in order to reverse Labour’s reputation for being soft on foreign policy and anti-Semitism.

The episode will invite accusations from the left and right that Starmer’s mission to “root out” anti-Semitism in the party is factional and selective. Critics are already pointing to other, less egregious examples that have resulted in disciplinary proceedings. The MP Kate Osamor was suspended for saying on Holocaust Memorial Day a genocide was happening in Gaza. Andy McDonald had the whip suspended for using the phrase “from the river to the sea”. 

That Ali can’t be struck off as the candidate doesn’t rule out suspending his membership, or removing the whip if he’s elected, or advising Labour voters not to vote for him. But the threat from George Galloway, who is standing in the Rochdale by-election, and the anger from some Muslim voters over the party’s position on Gaza seems to have stopped the Labour leadership from taking a course it might have pursued a few months ago. Having decided to stick by its candidate, the question now is what the party does if Ali is elected.

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[See also: Anas Sarwar: I can’t afford an “unpopular” Labour government]

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