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12 February 2024

Why the Azhar Ali affair is so damaging for Labour

The party’s delayed suspension of its Rochdale candidate for anti-Semitism has undermined its political and moral credibility.

By George Eaton

Keir Starmer has sought to define his Labour leadership through “zero tolerance” of anti-Semitism. But when it emerged on Saturday night that the party’s Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali had expressed an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory – that Israel allowed the 7 October massacre to happen to give it a “green light” to invade Gaza – Labour stood by him.

Earlier today, shadow cabinet minister Nick Thomas-Symonds, a close ally of Keir Starmer, said that Ali had “fallen for an online conspiracy theory” and that his apology was sufficient. Yesterday shadow international development secretary Lisa Nandy appeared alongside Ali at a scheduled campaign event. The party at large suggested that it had no choice but to support Ali – under electoral law it cannot select an alternative candidate before the by-election on 29 February (the deadline was 2 February).

Yet tonight, following much outrage, that changed. A Labour spokesperson announced that the party had “withdrawn its support” from Ali and suspended his membership after “new information about further comments” emerged. It transpired that Ali had also blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for Labour MP Andy McDonald’s suspension (why it took two anti-Semitic conspiracy theories for the party to act was not explained).

The damage, however, is very much done. Starmer, unusually, has found himself under attack from both the left and the right. They observed that MPs hostile to the leadership were shown no leniency: Kate Osamor lost the whip after saying Gaza should be remembered as a genocide; McDonald suffered the same sanction after speaking of his hope that “Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea can live in peaceful liberty”. Why was an exception (initially) made for Ali? The conclusion some drew was that Ali, an adviser to the last Labour government on anti-extremism, was given preferential treatment. Others, however, recall that lobby journalist Paul Waugh was the Labour leadership’s preferred candidate and suggest that George Galloway’s candidacy was the crucial factor in the delay.

Had the party immediately suspended Ali, it would have been applauded for its swift action. But the unnecessary delay has left it in the worst of all worlds. It has abandoned its candidate without winning any credit for doing so. 

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And the nightmare is not over yet; the carpetbagging Galloway will exploit the furore for all it is worth. 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. Such is the discontent over Labour’s stance that some MPs now avoid visiting mosques.

“The last thing Rochdale needs is the division and chaos and intimidation that comes with George Galloway’s self-serving, one-man circus,” a Labour spokesperson said last week. The problem is that it is Starmer’s party that has been left looking farcical.

The affair has exposed deeper problems for Labour. Last week’s delayed U-turn over the £28bn green pledge and this week’s delayed U-turn over Ali both demonstrate the need for more decisive decision-making inside the party. 

That Ali’s comments – made at a Lancashire Labour Party meeting soon after the 7 October attacks – only came to light through a Mail on Sunday exposé is another worrying sign for the party. Conspiracism and anti-Semitism undoubtedly endure among sections of Labour. Questions are rightly being asked about its lack of due diligence during the rapid selection contest.

In sum, Labour’s handling of the Ali affair has been a political and moral disaster – and its pain is only just beginning.

[See also: John Mearsheimer: “The Israel lobby is as powerful as ever”]

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