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14 February 2024

What Labour’s by-election woes mean for Sunak

Another Labour candidate has been suspended for anti-Semitism – is the opposition stalling?

By Freddie Hayward

This is damage limitation now. When a recording of the Labour parliamentary candidate for Hyndburn, Graham Jones, calling for Britons who fight for Israel to be “locked up” was published last night, the party had little choice but to suspend him immediately. That was the only way to avoid another accusation that the leadership was dithering after a slow response to the case of Azhar Ali in Rochdale. Momentum is building against Labour: the story splashes on the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the i, and the Morning Star.

Meanwhile, GB News published a photograph from Ali’s social media of him with George Galloway in 2015. Isn’t Keir Starmer’s Labour Party famous for thoroughly studying the social media accounts of prospective candidates for potential mishaps? Yes, that’s why there are questions over whether sufficient checks took place after Labour decided to expedite the Rochdale selection process. In his excellent column this week, Andrew sets out why Labour may have missed these red flags: “[Ali] 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.”

Whatever the lessons for the party’s processes in the long term, they won’t stop this swirling into a larger problem for Labour in the present. The hope will be simple: that the revelations stop. The problem is that attention has turned to other party members who were at the meetings in question. Sky News reports this morning that Labour’s leader in Hyndburn, Munsif Dad, was at the meeting in which Jones’s comments were taken and has been “spoken to” by the party.

The saga piles pressure on Labour to win the by-elections in Wellingborough and Kingswood tomorrow. The results will be parsed for a sign that Labour’s momentum is stalling. Labour strategists have always been clear – whether it’s Uxbridge or Hartlepool – that an electoral defeat will entail a tactical shift from the party.

These by-elections were not supposed to be a major checkpoint for Labour’s path to the general election. Westminster had got used to Labour and the Lib Dems crushing record Conservative majorities. But there is still danger for Rishi Sunak. Rumours of a coup attempt have been ricocheting around Westminster for weeks. Today’s update on inflation (which held steady at a rate of 4 per cent rather than increasing further, as expected), tomorrow’s growth figures and then the by-election results were to be the catalyst for a Tory assault on No 10. That may still materialise and it’s too early to draw conclusions about whether this episode will dent Labour’s lead in the polls. But it has certainly shifted the attention from a flailing Prime Minister to an opposition struggling to get its troops in line for the campaign to come. If Prime Minister’s Questions were happening later today (the Commons is in recess this week), Sunak might have had only one thing to say: “thanks, Keir.”

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[See also: How indecision turned toxic for Labour in Rochdale]

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