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  1. Politics
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13 February 2024

Labour’s withdrawal of support for Azhar Ali has come too late

Keir Starmer’s reputation for purging anti-Semitism from the party has been diminished.

By Freddie Hayward

The party has finally – agonisingly – pulled its support for Azhar Ali after further damaging revelations about the Labour candidate in the Rochdale by-election emerged. On Saturday, the Mail revealed he had said in the autumn that Israel had allowed the 7 October attack in order to give a “green light” to invade Gaza. His swift apology and the threat of George Galloway seemed to secure the leadership’s support, despite tougher punishments for less potent transgressions in the past.

The position looked unsustainable: as I wrote yesterday, if Ali was elected then it was unclear how he could sit under the Labour whip in the House of Commons. In other words, the party would have to disown him at some point so why not as soon as possible?

Then, last night, in a leak perfectly timed to finish the job, the Mail published another report in which Ali also appeared to blame “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for Labour MP Andy McDonald’s suspension last October. At that, the party’s support for Ali caved. Though because it is too late to change candidates, he will still stand.

What now? The constituency where Gordon Brown infamously called Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman” will be the location of a surreal and unconstructive two-week campaign. This by-election is not Britain’s finest hour. The Green Party has also said it will not campaign for its candidate after certain social media posts came to light. The Reform candidate – and former Labour MP – Simon Danczuk has previously sent inappropriate messages to a teenager.

And then there’s George Galloway, the Nick Griffin-endorsed former Labour MP who has made a political career out of capitalising on Muslim voters’ disillusionment with Labour. As George Eaton writes for the New Statesman: “Having defeated Labour twice before – in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and in Bradford West in 2012 – he will be eyeing a third victory. Were Galloway to return to the House of Commons, it would dent Labour’s political momentum and further inflame its divisions over the war in Gaza.”

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But the route to victory for Galloway is not easy. I think there’s a fair chance that, given he remains the Labour candidate on the ballot, Ali is defending a 9,668-vote majority and Labour is 20 points ahead in the national polls, he is still elected.

Whatever the result, this episode poses broader questions for Labour. The upshot is that Keir Starmer’s reputation for purging anti-Semitism from the party has been diminished; Labour could be forced to disavow its newly elected MP; the left of the party is annoyed at the inconsistent treatment of right and left MPs; a torrid week for the Tories’ has been overshadowed; and a question mark rests over the ability of the leader’s office to foresee political trouble and take action with the appropriate haste.

But let’s not catastrophise. Such episodes are unlikely to move the polls in the short term. The Tories are in no position to exploit such missteps. Rather, it presages problems for a Labour government. Last week, the furore over the £28bn exposed Labour’s failure to reconcile its fiscal conservatism with its ambitions for government. This week, the party leadership has worsened factional suspicions, which for now are contained by the collective desire to win an election, but could erupt in troubling ways for Starmer if he enters No 10.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

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

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