Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali: Is Labour right to stand by its man?

Tom Belger
Angela Rayner, centre, with Azhar Ali, right. Photo: Labour Party
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Voters head to the polls this week in Wellingborough and Kingswood (and you can read our interviews with the two candidates here and here). But it’s Labour’s candidate in the subsequent Rochdale contest Azhar Ali who is dominating the headlines – and all for the wrong reasons.

Azhar Ali may have apologised “unreservedly” after the Mail on Sunday claimed he said that Israel “allowed” Hamas’ attack on October 7th, but Ali and Labour alike face continued heavy criticism and media scrutiny today.

Critics are understandably asking – why has he not been suspended or ditched as a candidate? Shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds told broadcasters today Ali’s words were “completely wrong”, and “in no way represent” Labour’s views.

The Jewish Representative Council of Greater Manchester called the reported comments a “conspiratorial narrative”, “highly offensive” and “completely fictitious”.

Some on the left will fear the party’s decision to stand by Ali risks undermining years of work reassuring voters Labour is serious about antisemitism. The Tories and the Daily Mail‘s frontpage have already pounced today to question whether Labour has really changed.

JLM chair warns Galloway win would be worse

But it is notable who is leaping to Ali’s defence, beyond the party itself. Jewish Labour MP Louise Ellman condemned his comments, but said he had “always” been an ally for two decades while she faced antisemitic attacks – and “should now have the opportunity to work with the Jewish community to restore the loss of trust”.

Jewish Labour Movement national chair Mike Katz warns “handing” the by-election to controversial rival George Galloway will be “a Pyrrhic victory for those calling on Labour to go further now”.

Progressive Britain director Adam Langleben, who helped many Jewish members support the EHRC’s antisemitism investigation, agreed the “greater good” was not giving Galloway a parliamentary platform, noting it was too late to remove his name from ballot papers as Labour’s candidate.

Is Labour consistent on discipline?

Meanwhile the Labour left’s frequent suspicion of double standards, voiced here in relation to left-winger Kate Osamor recently losing the whip for her comments on Israel, received an unlikely endorsement from FT commentator Robert Shrimsley, calling the two cases “hard to reconcile”.

Party sources highlighted one important difference, telling The Times Ali fully and immediately apologised. Osamor apologised only for “offence caused”.

Katz has said JLM will not campaign in Rochdale, the case proves there is “still much work to do” on antisemitism, and Langleben floated Ali losing the whip after polls close – suggesting internal and external Labour troubles over the case may rumble on and on.

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