Sir Keir Starmer faces Labour split over Rochdale 'double standards'

Keir Starmer Campaigns With Labour's Wellingborough by-election candidate Gen Kitchen as they talk to Glenis Haynes in Dale's Bar at  Rushden & Diamonds football club on February 13, 2024
Keir Starmer campaigns with Labour's Wellingborough by-election candidate Gen Kitchen on February 13, 2024 - EDDIE KEOGH/GETTY/GETTY
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Sir Keir Starmer was accused of presiding over a “shambolic” delay in withdrawing support for Labour’s candidate in the Rochdale by-election as he faced fresh fire from all wings of his party.

Sir Keir stood by Azhar Ali for two days as he was embroiled in an anti-Semitism row but dropped support for him on Monday night after fresh comments emerged.

The aspiring MP had already apologised for previously suggesting Israel allowed Hamas to massacre its citizens on Oct 7 so it could invade Gaza.

Sir Keir’s U-turn came after the Mail reported Mr Ali had made further remarks suggesting Jewish control over the media and boasting about not flying Israeli flags following the Hamas terror attacks.

Criticism of the Labour leader was led by Martin Forde KC, who led a 2022 report that found factional disputes between the left and right of the party had taken place under Jeremy Corbyn, with both sides weaponising anti-Semitism.

Azhar Ali (left), who claimed Israel 'deliberately allowed' Hamas 's October 7 massacre of its own people, was suspended from the Labour Party pending an investigation
Azhar Ali (left), who claimed Israel 'deliberately allowed' Hamas 's October 7 massacre of its own people, was suspended from the Labour Party pending an investigation

Describing Sir Keir’s response as “shambolic”, Mr Forde told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If you want a fair and transparent system then it has to deal with people consistently.

“I’m aware from discussions with some of the MPs within the party – who might be described as more Left-leaning – that they feel that when it comes to disciplinary action taken against them things move rather slowly, but if you’re in the right faction of the party, as it were, then things are dealt with either more leniently or more swiftly.

“Now that’s a perception, I can’t quantify it, but I do think it’s something that the leadership should be concerned to, in a way, dilute, or if it is in fact the case, then they need to give reassurance both to the general public and the voting public and to their members that people will be treated fairly.”

Andrew Fisher, who was Labour’s head of policy under Jeremy Corbyn, accused Sir Keir of a “double standard” by initially giving Mr Ali “the benefit of the doubt”.

He said that the Labour leader had treated figures on the Left of the party who were accused of anti-Semitism more harshly, which he put down to “factional reasons”.

A bit of reflection

Lord Mann, a former Labour MP and the Government’s independent adviser on anti-Semitism, sought to absolve Sir Keir of the blame for Mr Ali’s selection but told Times Radio there should be “a bit of reflection about how they got themselves into this mess”.

“Starmer will be fuming at those who didn’t do the due diligence on Mr Ali because his remarks were extraordinarily crass… and way off the scale with these conspiracy theories.”

Lord Walney, another former Labour MP who now sits as a crossbench peer, expressed despair that “repugnant anti-Semitic conspiracy theories can be openly espoused in a mainstream political meeting”.

“For too long, we have too often allowed lack of understanding of Muslim communities and fear of being accused of anti-Muslim prejudice to allow totally unacceptable currents of opinion to go relatively unchallenged. That must change,” he wrote on Twitter.

Labour party candidate for Pendle, Azhar Ali looks on as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn talks onstage as he visits Nelson Library in Market Square on December 10, 2019 in Nelson
Azhar Ali who four years ago was Labour Party candidate for Pendle, Lancs, looks on as then party leader Jeremy Corbyn talks onstage as he visits Nelson Library in December 2019 - ANTHONY DEVLIN/GETTY/GETTY

There was also fury from the Left of the party, with Mish Rahman, who sits on Labour’s national executive committee, suggesting the initial decision to stand by Mr Ali was motivated by factionalism.

“Those performing mental gymnastics on media and Twitter statements explaining why Labour couldn’t suspend Ali have really shown themselves out for what they are – absolute hypocrites,” he said.

Mr Rahman also accused the party leadership of “double standards”.

It has not gone unnoticed that Sir Keir’s climbdown on Rochdale was his second major U-turn in the space of a week after he formally abandoned what was a flagship pledge to borrow £28 billion a year to invest in green projects.

In an interview with GB News, Rosie Duffield, who has been ostracised by some of her own colleagues for her views on transgender issues, said: “I don’t have any sort of input into the future manifesto as a backbencher, but I know that a lot of Labour MPs would really like some clarity on our policies going forward because we’re always asked about it.

Less fence-sitting

“I was really disappointed with the scrapping of the green pledges, as were lots of other vocal Labour MPs, so it would be nice to get a bit more clarity on those issues. A bit less fence-sitting in the next few months. And we’re going to have to do that, aren’t we? So people know what we stand for.”

Asked if she herself knew what Labour stood for, Ms Duffield’s replied “no”. Asked about the transgender row, an issue on which Sir Keir has also changed his position in recent months, she added: “I think we’re still in a bit of a mess about it. I’m not sure sitting on the fence on this issue is really winning the Labour Party any friends.”

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday afternoon, Sir Keir insisted he took “tough” and “decisive” action and said he had successfully “changed” Labour during what will soon be four years of leadership.

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