Labour stands by by-election candidate despite ‘deeply offensive’ Israel claims

Labour’s Rochdale candidate Azhar Ali suggested Hamas’s October 7 attack was an Israeli conspiracy.

Labour is standing by its Rochdale candidate Azhar Ali despite a furious backlash over comments he made about Israel
Rochdale by-election Labour is standing by its Rochdale candidate Azhar Ali despite a furious backlash over comments he made about Israel (Peter Byrne/PA)

Labour is facing criticism for standing by its Rochdale by-election candidate, even after he claimed that Israel allowed Hamas to carry out its October 7 attack to provide grounds to invade Gaza.

Azhar Ali apologised for his “deeply offensive” comments after he was recorded telling a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party that Israel had deliberately relaxed security after warnings of an imminent threat.

Labour’s decision to stick with Mr Ali has raised questions about Sir Keir Starmer’s claim to have changed his party since Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, when it was embroiled in an antisemitism controversy.

Azhar Ali has apologised for his ‘deeply offensive’ comments about Israel
Labour candidate for Rochdale, Azhar Ali. Azhar Ali has apologised for his ‘deeply offensive’ comments about Israel (Peter Byrne/PA)

Pat McFadden, Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator, said Mr Ali’s comments were “completely wrong” and did not represent the party’s view.

But he said Mr Ali would remain Labour’s parliamentary candidate in the Rochdale contest on February 29, which was triggered by the death of sitting MP Sir Tony Lloyd.

Mr McFadden told Sky News: “He’s issued a complete apology and retraction. And I hope he learns a good lesson from it because he should never have said something like that in the first place.”

The deadline to remove Mr Ali from the ballot paper has passed, but the party could withdraw campaign support.

The Tories have called for the aspiring MP’s campaign to be suspended and his Labour Party membership removed.

Conservative Cabinet minister Michael Gove said: “Sir Keir Starmer cannot continue to support this candidacy.”

In a recording obtained by The Mail on Sunday, Mr Ali said: “The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel 10 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.”

Hamas launched an attack on southern Israel on October 7 last year, in which 1,300 people were killed and more than 240 kidnapped. Israel has retaliated with months of attacks on the Gaza Strip, killing and wounding thousands.

Mr Ali, a Lancashire county councillor and former government adviser who was made an OBE in 2020 for public service, on Sunday said: “I apologise unreservedly to the Jewish community for my comments which were deeply offensive, ignorant and false.

“Hamas’s horrific terror attack was the responsibility of Hamas alone, and they are still holding hostages who must be released.”

He promised to “urgently apologise to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments”, saying that “the Labour Party has changed unrecognisably under Keir Starmer’s leadership”.

But Mr Ali’s remarks were seized on by some as evidence that Labour has failed to root out antisemitism after the Corbyn era.

Joe Glasman, head of political and government investigations at Campaign Against Antisemitism, said: “This man does not belong in a major political party, let alone in Parliament, yet Labour is, incredibly, still backing his candidacy after a quick apology.

“This is distressingly familiar to days that Sir Keir Starmer promised were behind us. This is not tearing antisemitism out ‘by its roots’.”

Labour recently suspended the MP Kate Osamor after she appeared to say the Gaza war should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Mr Glasman said the “inconsistency” in deciding not to suspend Mr Ali “is deeply alarming” and must be “urgently re-examine(d)”.

Mike Katz, the national chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, said his group would not campaign in Rochdale as Mr Ali had “destroyed his past record of allyship with the Jewish community” with his “totally reprehensible” comments.

But he stopped short of calling on Labour to drop the candidate, warning that the “alternative in Rochdale is George Galloway” whose victory would “harm the Jewish community far more than electing Ali”.

He added: “We know how far the party has come under Keir Starmer in tackling antisemitism and that the party, from Starmer down, is as shocked and disgusted by Ali’s comments as we are.”

Dame Louise Ellman, who rejoined Labour after quitting over Mr Corbyn’s handling of antisemitism, criticised Mr Ali’s “outrageous and deeply offensive” remarks but said they were “out of character”.

“I have known Azhar for over twenty years and he consistently supported me when I was subjected to antisemitic attacks,” she said.

“He should now have the opportunity to work with the Jewish community to restore the loss of trust his actions have caused.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was criticised for initially refusing to back an immediate ceasefire in Gaza
Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was criticised for initially refusing to back an immediate ceasefire in Gaza (Andrew Matthews/PA)

As well as reigniting a row over antisemitism in the party, Mr Ali’s comments could highlight divisions within Labour over its stance on the Gaza conflict.

The Labour leadership’s initial refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire faced serious criticism from within the party ranks.

Sir Keir has since hardened his tone towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and backed the Government’s call for a sustainable ceasefire as the Palestinian death toll has mounted.

Also running in Rochdale are its former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, now the Reform Party candidate, and Mr Galloway, of the Workers Party of Britain, who is campaigning against Labour’s stance on Gaza.

About 20% of the electorate and 30% of the population of the town are Asian, with polls nationally suggesting Labour’s vote could be hit by Asian people unhappy with the party over Palestine and its perceived support for Israel.