Starmer under pressure over handling of anti-Semitism row in Rochdale byelection

Labour initially defended candidate before withdrawing support over claims Israel allowed October 7th attacks to occur

British Labour leader Keir Starmer was on Tuesday hit by the fallout of his handling of a row over alleged anti-Semitic remarks by his party’s candidate in the Rochdale byelection.

Sir Keir insisted he had taken “decisive action” in withdrawing support from Azhar Ali on Monday night, but he was accused of presiding over a “shambles” having originally agreed to stand by him.

Supporters of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Sir Keir was guilty of double standards and was willing to take instant action over alleged anti-Semitic remarks by those on the left of the party, while being more lenient towards those – such as Mr Ali – on the right.

Sir Keir pledged to root out anti-Semitism from Labour’s ranks on becoming leader in 2020 after his far-left predecessor Mr Corbyn was heavily criticised for his handling of allegations of abuse.


“Further information came to light yesterday calling for decisive action, so I took decisive action,” Sir Keir said. “It is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during the course of a byelection.”

Bookmakers have now installed George Galloway, the firebrand former Labour MP, as the new favourite to win the contest on February 29th, triggered by the death of Tony Lloyd last month.

Mr Galloway’s Workers Party has sought to exploit Labour tensions over Sir Keir’s stance on the war in Gaza. It has portrayed the contest in a leaflet as a “straight choice between George who will fight for Palestine” and Sir Keir who will “fight for Israel”.

Sir Keir originally agreed to let Mr Ali continue as Labour’s candidate after a report at the weekend that the Lancashire county councillor had claimed Israel let Hamas attack on October 7th to give it a pretext to launch an assault on Gaza.

Shadow ministers publicly defended Mr Ali, pointing out that he had apologised. But late on Monday, the party said it was withdrawing its support after “new information” about Mr Ali’s comments had come to light.

The Daily Mail reported it had obtained an audio tape in which Mr Ali blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for fuelling criticism of a pro-Palestinian Labour MP.

Because nominations for the contest have closed, Mr Ali will appear on ballot papers as a Labour candidate, even though the party has formally withdrawn its support. He would not sit as a Labour MP if elected.

Martin Forde, a barrister who carried out an independent review into allegations of racism and bullying in the Labour Party, told the BBC it would have been “sensible” to withdraw support for Mr Ali when his comments first emerged.

He said there was a perception among some left-wing MPs “that if you’re in the right faction of the party, as it were, then things are dealt with either more leniently or more swiftly”.

Andrew Fisher, former head of policy under Mr Corbyn’s leadership, said Sir Keir’s handling of the issue had been “a shambles” and that it revealed “double standards in the Labour Party”.

Mr Fisher said Mr Ali had been given the benefit of the doubt by the party leadership. “That doesn’t apply to people on the left, ever,” he said.

Pat McFadden, Labour’s head of campaigns, defended Sir Keir. “The fact you have got very rare circumstances where a political party is withdrawing support for a candidate after nominations have closed” showed that the leader was serious about “rooting anti-Semitism out of the Labour Party”.

Voters in the Rochdale byelection will now face the extraordinary situation where there are three former Labour candidates on the ballot paper but no officially endorsed party candidate.

Apart from Mr Ali and Mr Galloway, the contest is also being fought by Simon Danczuk, a former Labour MP for Rochdale who is standing for the populist Reform UK party.

Mr Danczuk was suspended by Labour in 2015 over allegations he sent explicit messages to a teenage girl. He subsequently accepted that his behaviour was “inappropriate” and apologised.

Mr Danczuk said his campaign would now concentrate on stopping Mr Galloway. “My campaign will be to tell the electorate that they will not want an MP who would prioritise Palestine over Rochdale,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here