Labour has refused to stop campaigning in Rochdale despite a furious backlash over its candidate’s “disgraceful” claims that Israel deliberately let Hamas massacre its citizens.
Senior Toris have urged the party to stop rallying behind Azhar Ali after the aspiring MP accused the Israelis of paving the way for the slaughter of their own people on Oct 7, in order to get the “green light” to attack Gaza.
But it is understood Labour plans to continue campaigning as normal ahead of the by-election on Feb 29, with Mr Ali remaining its chosen candidate.
On Sunday, soon after the inflammatory remarks emerged, shadow minister Lisa Nandy was pictured at a scheduled event alongside Mr Ali, prompting widespread criticism on social media.
The Rochdale candidate made the offending comments at a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party shortly after the Hamas terror attacks, according to the Mail on Sunday.
In a secret recording obtained by the newspaper, he is reported to have 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.”
‘It is completely wrong’
He has now apologised “unreservedly” for the remarks, describing them as “deeply offensive, ignorant, and false”.
Pat McFadden, Labour’s national campaign coordinator, condemned the comments and said Mr Ali was right to say sorry.
“He should never have said something like that. It is of course completely wrong to say that,” he told Sky News’ Sunday With Trevor Phillips.
“I saw this last night. 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.”
But he confirmed Mr Ali would remain Labour’s candidate in the upcoming contest to replace the former MP Sir Tony Lloyd, who died in January, despite outrage in the Jewish community.
It is not possible for Labour to remove Mr Ali’s name from the ballot now nominations have closed. However Sir Keir may have chosen to distance himself from the Rochdale candidate, ceased campaigning or even suspended Mr Ali from the party.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews described the comments as “disgraceful and unforgivable” and said it would have urged Labour to find a new candidate if it were not too late to do so.
The Jewish Leadership Council added: “It doesn’t matter if Mr Ali believes these words or not, he clearly felt it profitable to utter them. For that alone, Labour needs to take action.”
It is understood others in the community would also have demanded a replacement, if that had been an option.
Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, who is Jewish, and Richard Holden, the Conservative Party chairman, both urged Labour to cease campaigning immediately.
Mr Holden said: “Time after time, Sir Keir Starmer says that he’s changed Labour. Time after time we’re seeing that simply isn’t true.
“While vile racist slurs are freely exchanged within Sir Keir’s Labour Party, it is unfit to hold public office.
“Sir Keir should immediately remove Mr Ali’s Labour membership and suspend Labour’s campaign.”
Rifts in the Labour Party
Mr Shapps told The Telegraph he agreed that Labour should stop campaigning now, in light of Mr Ali’s remarks.
In a Twitter post, Michael Gove wrote: “Sir Keir Starmer cannot continue to support this candidacy”.
The controversy threatens to exacerbate rifts in the Labour Party over the Israel-Hamas war with Sir Keir under pressure from several of his own MPs to call for an immediate ceasefire.
Mr Ali was also said to have claimed the Labour leader had lost the confidence of the parliamentary party over his approach to the conflict in the Middle East.
When someone at the meeting suggested Sir Keir was “held in high regard”, he reportedly replied: “Can I disagree with you? A lot of the MPs I’ve spoken to, non-Muslim MPs, feel that on this issue he’s lost the confidence of the parliamentary party.”
Mr Ali said in a statement: “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.
“Oct 7 was the greatest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust, and Jews in the UK and across the world are living in fear of rising anti-Semitism.
“I will urgently apologise to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments.
“The Labour Party has changed unrecognisably under Keir Starmer’s leadership – he has my full support in delivering the change Britain needs.”
Mike Katz, chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, said Mr Ali had “destroyed his past record of allyship with the Jewish community and has a mountain to climb to repair it”.
He announced that his organisation would not be campaigning in Rochdale but warned against handing victory to George Galloway, the leader of the Workers Party of Britain, out of contempt for Labour’s candidate.
He added: “We know how far the party has come under Keir Starmer in tackling anti-Semitism and that the party, from Starmer down, is as shocked and disgusted by Ali’s comments as we are. This proves there is still much work to do.”
Baroness Anderson, a Labour spokesman in the Lords, said she agreed with “every word” of Mr Katz’s comment.