Labor withdraws its support for Rochdale candidate Azhar Ali over his comments about Israel

  • Written by Sam Francis
  • Political correspondent, BBC News

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Azhar Ali issued an apology for his comments about Israel that appeared in the Daily Mail

Labor has withdrawn its support for Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali over comments he apparently made at a meeting.

The Daily Mail published a recording that appeared to show Ali blaming Jewish media figures for fueling criticism against the pro-Palestinian Labor Party MP.

This means that Labor will not have a candidate on the ballot paper because it is too late to replace him. Mr Ali could still be elected as an independent MP.

He has been contacted for comment.

Labor spent days defending Ali as a candidate after the Mail on Sunday newspaper published comments by Mr Ali, in which he claimed Israel had “allowed” the Hamas attack.

Mr. Ali subsequently apologized “to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments.”

On Monday evening, the Daily Mail published a second recording, purporting to be from Ali, in which he blamed “people in the media from some Jewish quarters” for the suspension of Andy MacDonald from the Labor Party.

MacDonald was suspended last year after saying: “We will not rest until we get justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful freedom.”

The person on the recording goes on to say that Israel planned to “get rid of… [Palestinians] From Gaza” and “seizing” the land.

He also appears to take pride in banning Israeli flags from being flown on local public buildings after the deadly attack by Hamas gunmen on October 7.

Labour's national campaign coordinator, Pat McFadden, said Ali had been suspended after “further comments” emerged.

Mr McFadden said “the fact that you have very rare circumstances where a political party withdraws its support for a candidate after nominations have closed” showed Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer was serious about “rooting out anti-Semitism from the Labor Party”.

Withdrawing support for Mr Ali would be a blow to Labour, which initially sided with him as a candidate to take over as MP for Rochdale after the death of Sir Tony Lloyd.

It is also unlikely that Mr Ali – a Lancashire county councilor – will be chosen by Labor to stand in the next general election.

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Azhar Ali launched his campaign to be Labour's candidate for Rochdale on 7 February, receiving public support from several high-profile figures including Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.

A Labor spokesman said: “Keir Starmer has changed Labor beyond recognition from the party of 2019… It is important that any candidate put forward by Labor fully represents its aims and values.”

The Labor Party has faced intense pressure since Mr Ali's comments on Israel first emerged, with widespread condemnation from party members and his political opponents.

MPs Lisa Nandy and Anneliese Dodds were out campaigning for Mr Ali in the constituency at the weekend.

Shadow Minister Nick Thomas-Symonds was also sent to defend Labour's decision to back Mr Ali on Monday morning.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today program that the comments were “completely unacceptable” but noted that Mr Ali understood “the seriousness of the offense caused” and that he had “apologized unreservedly”.

The Labor Party's decision to withdraw its support for Mr Ali will add an additional layer of uncertainty to the results of the by-election on Thursday 29 February.

Also running are former Labor MP Simon Danchuk, now the Reform Party candidate, and George Galloway, of Britain's Labor Party, who is campaigning against Labour's position on Gaza. Paul Ellison, a local business owner and activist, represents the Conservatives, while Ian Donaldson represents the Liberal Democrats.

Jay Otten's name will appear on the ballot for the Green Party, but Mr Otten announced that he would step down from the party after comments appeared in which he criticized Palestinians and Islam.

A spokesman for the Campaign Against Antisemitism said the decision to withdraw support was “the worst ever”.

The spokesperson added: “Rather than appearing as a principled decision, Labor withdrawing its support for its candidate at this late stage appears appropriately like a failed attempt to defend him.”

“Sir Keir Starmer has erased a rather impressive book and given the public reason to doubt the seriousness of his promise to root out anti-Semitism in the Labor Party.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak accused Labor of withdrawing its support for Mr Ali only because of “enormous media pressure”.

“This is unprincipled,” Mr Sunak said.

In recent months, Labor has suspended two of its MPs over comments related to the conflict, including Mr McDonald.

In January, Kate Osamor removed the party whip after she said Gaza should be remembered as a genocide in a post about Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Israel declared war on Hamas after the group led an attack on communities inside Israel, killing more than 1,200 people.

Since then, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, at least 28,340 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 68,000 others injured when Israel launched missiles and ground operations into the Gaza Strip in retaliation.

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