‘Rochdale deserved better – here’s what Labour must learn from this sorry saga’

Sunder Katwala
© SevenMaps/Shutterstock.com

Councillor Azhar Ali had described his comments about Israel deliberately allowing the October 7th massacre to happen as “inexcusable” – as well as “deeply offensive, ignorant and false”.

But with the deadline for printing the ballot papers for the February 29th leap year by-election long gone, Labour spent two days after those comments emerged looking for the formula to excuse them sufficiently to recommend that the town should still make Ali its next MP. Then last night it suspended its campaign and candidate as further alleged comments began to emerge.

The standard of candidate vetting in selections in the last two general elections – across parties – was shockingly patchy. That is one reason why the current Labour leadership has been happy to gain a reputation for control freakery instead.

But it dropped the ball in Rochdale in a desire to get a tricky by-election over with unseemly haste. The candidate selection took place just 11 days after the late Tony Lloyd’s death. The party’s campaign has come to a premature halt even before the late MP’s funeral this Friday.

Labour mishandled this incident in a number of ways

Labour’s political opponents are questioning how far Keir Starmer has got to grips with antisemitism in his party. Despite significant efforts to rebuild trust since the EHRC found the party in breach of its legal obligations to Jewish members, the party should recognise the painful, partial validity of that charge.

These taped comments are reported to have been made at a local meeting in Lancashire. Had somebody who heard them intervened earlier – before the candidate selection process was completed – Labour could have avoided this mess. Consistency matters when tackling prejudice in politics. Ali did apologise unreservedly – once a newspaper was about to make his comments public. Labour MPs have also been suspended – post-apology – for crass and offensive comments rather less grave than October 7th being an inside job.

Most Labour MPs avoided saying anything at all about the controversy in the first 48 hours, unless unlucky enough to be the frontbench spokesperson on the broadcast media rota. The aim was presumably to avoid giving oxygen to the story or generating new splits.

But that meant that too few Labour voices even said what was wrong with the antisemitic conspiracy theory. Another unfortunate consequence of deploying the political communications textbook is that it seemed to be left almost exclusively to Jewish Labour members to try to navigate the controversy, musing aloud about whether Ali’s antisemitic comments should be seen as a lesser evil than the risks of George Galloway being elected.

A party that seeks to govern 2020s Britain will need to rebuild trust with Jewish and Muslim citizens at the same time – but will not achieve that without understanding bridge-building across all minority and majority groups is a social democratic mission for the whole party, rather than still primarily the duty of those from minority groups.

Rochdale deserved better. Labour will need new local leadership

The outcome is a bizarre by-election with no Labour candidate yet several ghosts of Labour past. Ali’s name will appear next to the Labour logo. Ex-MP Simon Danczuk, suspended by Labour over inappropriate sexual texts to a teenager, carries the Reform banner. Some Labour voters may still cast their vote for Ali or switch parties. Many may now sit the by-election out.

Galloway, an MP twice since being expelled from Labour two decades ago, could well prove the main beneficiary of a reduced turnout and a fragmented vote. Emulating the 8,000 votes that secured Galloway a third place in Batley could now prove enough to get elected in Rochdale.

Galloway has a good chance of taking up to a third of the Rochdale vote. Even if more than half of the town would not want Galloway, the vote may fragment in all directions in such a short, disrupted campaign. The Lib Dems once supplied the most infamous of Rochdale’s disgraced former MPs in Cyril Smith but hope for a political recovery in a new era.

The Conservatives have in Paul Ellison a well-rooted candidate, known locally for championing the Rochdale in Bloom horticultural displays, but he faces the handicap of representing an unpopular governing party. The Greens have also withdrawn support from their candidate over past social media posts he dubbed “regrettable”.

Labour may take some consolation in the fact that voting for Galloway in one previous by-election appeared to be a powerful vaccine against repeating the experiment at the subsequent general election. After an insurgent victory in Bradford West in 2012, he lost decisively in 2015. Galloway also declined to stand again in Bethnal Green in 2010 after his breakthrough five years earlier, perhaps fearing defeat.

Yet Rochdale, a town of anxious, fractured cross-community relations, deserved better than this. Ali’s stated ambition was to campaign as a unifier, not a divider – an idea lost to conspiratorial prejudice. So Labour will need new local leadership by the general election: a situation vacant for an effort to repair the damage and rebuild trust.

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