This almighty mess leaves Starmer indistinguishable from Corbyn

Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer
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Like most political scandals, Keir Starmer did not see this one coming. And while “existential” is an over-used cliché in political circles, it is hard to overstate the potential and potentially cataclysmic, consequences that his mishandling of the Rochdale by-election could have for him.

No one else chose to nail the Labour leader’s reputation on the success with which Starmer repeatedly announced he was dealing with the stain of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. This was a fight he chose to pick. Yet he now stands accused of the same self-destructive tolerance of anti-Semitism that doomed his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

Such a claim would have had little credibility just a week ago when Kate Osamor, the MP for Edmonton, lost the whip after accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza. She is unlikely to be given it back before the next general election. But that was before Starmer and his party spent dozens of hours trying desperately to save the career of a candidate who spread distasteful anti-Semitic smears. And those attempts were made to gain short-term electoral advantage.

Starmer framed his rise to the leadership around being the anti-Corbyn. Today, however, it seems difficult to distinguish one from the other. Like Corbyn, Starmer has sought to give his own indecision the veneer of decisiveness. Like Corbyn, the end result has been tolerance of anti-Semitism. And like Corbyn, the wider party has appeared more comfortable for anti-Semites than for Jewish people. Perhaps then, like Corbyn, this disastrous party management will have ramifications far beyond the by-election itself.

Azhar Ali, having been chosen as Labour’s candidate in the by-election caused by the death of the incumbent MP, Tony Lloyd, has been exposed as the worst kind of Left-wing crank, recorded telling party activists that Israel had known in advance about Hamas’s planned attack on Oct 7, but did nothing to prevent it to justify its subsequent attack on Gaza.

Little attention has been given to a secondary problem for the Labour leader – namely that no one present at that meeting seemingly thought to argue with Ali, or even immediately report him to the party leadership. That will become a pressing political problem for Starmer before long. How much has he really been able to transform the party, from grassroots up, since Corbyn’s downfall? How much has he protected his own leadership from the accusations that brought down his predecessor?

It was Starmer himself who tried to sustain support for a man who, had he already been elected as a Labour MP, would surely have been suspended for his comments. Only after further distasteful remarks by Ali were reported did the party reluctantly pull the rug from under him, leaving him as the Labour candidate in name only, facing the possibility that, should he win on Feb 29, he will have to sit in the Commons as an independent.

It is an almighty mess, and it fatally undermines the reputation of Labour as a professional party of potential government. It is impossible to imagine Tony Blair, as leader of the opposition in 1996, handling this situation anywhere near as badly as Starmer has done.

Worse, his volte-face in his support for Ali is not only an about-turn but puts all his other, many policy reverses in the shade. This wasn’t about fiscal responsibility or bringing a policy up to date: the delay in dealing with someone who spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories undermines his personal commitment to removing anti-Jewish racism from his party.

Whatever the outcome in Rochdale, Starmer’s efforts to keep Ali inside the party after his comments were reported, as well as his failure to ensure he was properly vetted in the first place, will be blamed for whatever combination of disaster will emerge on March 1. And the result can only be a disaster for Labour, whether Ali is somehow elected, or ex-Labour MP George Galloway pulls off yet another improbable comeback.

With weeks to go before Rochdale voters go to the polls, Starmer is already more vulnerable than at any time since Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election to the Conservatives in 2021. Every day between now and polling day will be agony for the Labour leader as the media pursue the un-candidate and Labour’s opponents gleefully capitalise on these errors.

If any of the Starmer’s many critics within the party wish to strike, this will be their best and only chance this side of the general election. There may be many who see the blood in the water. Not least Corbyn’s supporters.

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