Starmer says he took tough action against Rochdale candidate after Labour accused of ‘ ‘shambolic’ delay
Sign up for the View from Westminster email for expert analysis straight to your inbox
Get our free View from Westminster email
Would-be prime minister Keir Starmer has insisted he took decisive action after Labour was accused of a “shambolic” delay in withdrawing support for a candidate who claimed Israel had allowed the Hamas attack that killed 1,200 people.
In his first public comments since the row erupted on Sunday, the Labour leader also denied he would have dumped the prospective MP sooner had he been on the left of his party.
And he pledged to investigate allegations against any other Labour councillors present when Azhar Ali made his widely condemned remarks.
Earlier Martin Forde KC described Labour’s reaction in the two days since Mr Ali’s first comments emerged, as “pretty shambolic.”
He condemned the remarks as “clearly antisemitic” and “inflammatory”, and said Labour should have withdrawn its support at the weekend: “That to me would be the sensible thing to do.”
“One does have to question how such individuals are selected in the first place”, he said, and added that left-leaning Labor MPs feel there has been a “disparity in treatment” when it comes to allegations of antisemitism.
Mr Forde’s 2022 inquiry, commissioned by Keir Starmer, found that both the left and right wings of the party had used antisemitism as a factional weapon under former leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour initially backed Mr Ali, who said Israel had “allowed” the October 7 massacre in order to attack Gaza, saying he had fallen for an online conspiracy theory.
But the party dramatically dropped him on Monday night after it emerged he had also blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for fuelling criticism of a pro-Palestinian MP.
The Conservatives said the furore showed claims Labour had changed under Sir Keir were “hollow”.
A group of Tory MPs, including former defence sec Ben Wallace, have also written to Labour to ask if any Labour MPs or councillors were at the meeting and if they spoke up to oppose the comments.
Appearing on the campaign trail in Wellingborough, Sir Keir defended the delay. He said: “Certain information came to light over the weekend in relation to the candidate. There was a fulsome apology. Further information came to light yesterday calling for decisive action, so I took decisive action.
“It is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during the course of a by-election. It’s a tough decision, a necessary decision, but when I say the Labour Party has changed under my leadership I mean it.” He also denied he had stuck by Mr Ali because of factionalism, saying it makes “no difference to me where somebody stands in the Labour Party”..
Former Labour MP, now the government’s antisemitism tsar, Lord Mann said it was “hardly a surprise” Labour had been forced to pull its support.
He called on political leaders from all parties to “get their collective acts together to sort this out” as he warned of a “tornado” of anti-Jewish racism working its way through the country.
Labour MP Steve McCabe also described the affair as “embarrassing” for his party, although he defended the decision to back him initially “to give him the benefit of the doubt that he said his apology in good faith”.
Mr Ali initially apologised after he was recorded suggesting in a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party that Israel had used the October 7 Hamas assault as an excuse to invade Gaza.
On Monday night a party spokesperson said Labour’s backing had been withdrawn “following new information” about the aspiring MP, understood to be suspended pending an investigation.
Labour recently suspended an MP, Kate Osamor, after she appeared to suggest the Gaza war should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day, for which she later apologised.
Veteran MP Diane Abbott has also had the whip withdrawn after she suggested Jewish, Irish and Traveller people were not subject to racism “all their lives” in a letter to the Observer last year.
She apologised and suggested that “errors arose” when the letter was being drafted.
Mr Forde highlighted both cases, saying “things seemed to drag on in terms of disciplining certain elements of the party, and be dealt with swiftly in others”.
Sir Keir has boasted of turning his party around after controversies over alleged antisemitism dogged Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader.
Tory minister Lee Rowley accused Labour of “going to ground” over the furore, after no shadow minister appeared on Tuesday’s morning media.
“Where’s Labour today?,” he told Sky News.
On Monday Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator Pat McFadden said the party acted because “new information and more comments have come to light which meant that we had to look at this situation again”.
A spokesperson said: “Keir Starmer has changed Labour so that it is unrecognisable from the party of 2019. We understand that these are highly unusual circumstances, but it is vital that any candidate put forward by Labour fully represents its aims and values. Given that nominations have now closed, Azhar Ali cannot be replaced as the candidate.”
Labour’s U-turn has created uncertainty over who will win the Rochdale vote at the end of this month.
Also standing are former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, now the Reform Party candidate, and ex-Labour MP George Galloway, of the Workers Party of Britain, who is campaigning against Labour’s stance on Gaza.
Polls suggest Labour’s vote could be hit by unhappiness over Labour’s perceived support for Israel.
If elected, Mr Ali will sit as an independent MP and will not receive the party whip.
A spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism said Sir Keir had “blotted an otherwise fairly admirable copybook and given the public reason to doubt the earnestness of his promise to tear antisemitism out ‘by its roots’ in Labour. People will have to judge for themselves whether the additional reported comments by Azhar Ali are really any worse than the comments that had already been reported.”