Azhar Ali: Who is Labour’s former Rochdale candidate, what did he say and what’s the latest?

Tom Belger
Angela Rayner, centre, with Azhar Ali, right. Photo: Labour Party

Labour has withdrawn support from its Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali this week, with the aspiring MP’s past alleged comments on Hamas, Israel and Jews in the spotlight.

Here is what you need to know about what’s happened, who Labour’s now-ex-candidate is, how he got selected and how the Labour party has responded.

Why is Azhar Ali in the headlines, and why has Labour withdrawn support?

Azhar Ali apologised “unreservedly” after the Mail on Sunday claimed he told a meeting last year that Israel “allowed” Hamas’ attack on October 7th in order to get a “green light to do whatever they bloody want”.

The comments sparked heavy criticism, including from Labour itself, over the weekend and on Monday. Shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds told broadcasters 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”.

Here is what Ali himself tweeted:

Then the Daily Mail published a further story on Monday night including a recording in which someone claims that “the media, and some of the people in the media from certain Jewish quarters, were giving **** about what he said”.

The Mail claims the recording is of Ali last year, talking about the suspension of Labour MP Andy McDonald for using the phrase “between the river and the sea”.

It does not include a response to this from Ali himself in the story, only his previous apology for the first reported comments. He was not immediately available for comment when contacted by LabourList.

Labour then confirmed on Monday evening it had withdrawn support from Ali, leaving it without a candidate as it is too late for a new one to be added to ballot papers for the contest at the end of the month.

A spokesman for the party said the decision followed “new information about further comments made by Azhar Ali coming to light today”, though did not specify which information or comments.

They also said it is “vital that any candidate put forward by Labour fully represents its aims and values”.

Ali’s name will remain alongside the Labour logo on ballot papers, but he would likely sit initially at least as an independent if he won. It is understood he has been suspended from the party while it conducts an investigation.

Why did Labour not initially drop him as a candidate?

The Tories, some of the right-wing press and others including voices on the Labour left have questioned why Labour did not immediately suspended or abandon Ali quicker as its official candidate until the second reported comments emerged, particularly as it has taken tough action over some other candidates and MPs’ contentious comments in the past.

As the BBC notes, “from day one of his leadership, Keir Starmer has been trying to rebuild relations with the Jewish community”, and continuing to back Ali initially risked “undermining years of work winning the trust of Jewish people”.

Thomas-Symonds had told broadcasters on Monday morning the first comments were “out of character” for Ali. Several prominent Jewish Labour figures including former MP Louise Ellman were among those to come out saying he should remain Labour’s candidate, while criticising his remarks.

Prior to the Mail’s second story, Jewish Labour Movement national chair Mike Katz also warned “handing” the by-election to controversial rival George Galloway will be “a Pyrrhic victory for those calling on Labour to go further now”.  Galloway once told a political meeting: “We have declared Bradford an Israel-free zone.”

Thomas-Symonds had also said used the justification that “the deadline is the deadline” for ballot papers, as it is too late for the party to change its official candidate on ballot papers.

The party in London had already recently dropped one candidate days before polling day despite being unable to change ballot papers, however – though  in a council by-election rather than parliamentary by-election with much wider national political ramifications.

When the decision was eventually made to withdraw support, the party spokesperson acknowledged “highly unusual circumstances”, adding: “Given that nominations have now closed Azhar Ali cannot be replaced as the candidate.”

Who is Azhar Ali?

Azhar Ali is from Brierfield, a town in Pendle, Lancashire about a 45-minute drive from Rochdale.

According to the Lancashire BME Network charity’s website, which lists him as its chair, one of his early steps in politics was becoming leader of the students union at nearby Nelson & Colne College.

Ali joined Pendle Council in 24, eventually becoming council leader. He stood as Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Pendle in 2015 and 2019, according to the Lancashire Evening Post.

He became a councillor on Lancashire County Council in 2013, and the LEP reports he took charge as leader in 2017. He has also been awarded an OBE for his service to the community.

Ali called the late Rochdale MP Tony Lloyd a “dear friend”, and part of his campaign has included saying he wants to “continue Tony’s legacy”, sending a message to prime minister Rishi Sunak and rival George Galloway alike that Rochdale rejects them.

How was Ali initially selected as a candidate?

Ali was chosen as Labour’s candidate late last month, winning against political journalist Paul Waugh and Wigan councillor Nazia Rehman.

The latest revelations have fuelled questions about why he was selected in the first place, with critics arguing he should not have been given his comments and questioning Labour’s selection process.

Labour’s standard selection process includes due diligence checks on candidates invited to interview, and some candidates are excluded at that point based on past comments. The party has previously said it has ensured processes are robust following criticism over some parliamentary candidates selected in the past.

It is not clear exactly how those overseeing shortlisting – or Rochdale Constituency Labour Party members who subsequently voted – would have been aware of Ali’s reported comments, however – if the Mail on Sunday‘s story this Sunday was the first time the recording had been shared beyond those present at the meeting.

The meeting where Ali reportedly made his comments was also not a Rochdale CLP event.

Some have also questioned why the recording was not made public during the selection process or even earlier, rather than this weekend.  The comments are said to have been last year, not long after the Hamas attack of October 7th.


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