Labour handling of Rochdale candidate’s Israel remarks shambolic – inquiry head

Labour’s handling of the row over its Rochdale by-election candidate’s comments about Israel and Jewish people has been “shambolic”, the lawyer who led a review into the party’s culture has said.

Martin Forde KC said MPs within the party feel there has been a “disparity in treatment” of allegations of antisemitism following the leadership’s rowback in support for Azhar Ali.

Labour withdrew backing for Mr Ali after the Daily Mail reported that he had blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for fuelling criticism of a pro-Palestinian MP.

Mr Forde, whose 2022 inquiry found that both left and right wings of the party had used antisemitism as a factional weapon under former leader Jeremy Corbyn, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If you want a fair and transparent system then it has to deal with people consistently.”

He added: “I’m aware from discussions with some of the MPs within the party – who might be described as left-leaning – that they feel that when it comes to disciplinary action taken against them then 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.

The leadership should be “concerned” about that perception and “if it is in fact the case” then to give reassurances “that people will be treated fairly,” the senior barrister said.

“One does have to question how such individuals are selected in the first place, and also the disparity in treatment, because one of the things that concerned us when we talked about weaponisation was certainly the perception that antisemitism was along factional lines,” he said.

Mr Ali had initially apologised after he was recorded suggesting in a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party that Israel had taken the October 7 Hamas assault as a pretext to invade Gaza.

But a party spokesperson said on Monday evening that the aspiring MP, who is understood to be suspended pending an investigation, had Labour’s backing withdrawn “following new information about further comments”.

The party recently suspended the MP Kate Osamor after she appeared to say the Gaza war should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day, for which she later apologised.

Veteran MP Diane Abbott also had the whip withdrawn immediately after suggesting Jewish, Irish and Traveller people are not subject to racism “all their lives” in a letter to the Observer last year.

She apologised and suggested “errors arose” in the drafting of the letter.

Mr Forde highlighted both previous cases, saying “things seemed to drag on in terms of disciplining certain elements of the party, and be dealt with swiftly in others”.

Sir Keir Starmer has sought to move his party on from the Corbyn leadership, which was often overshadowed by controversies over antisemitism.

But the party leadership is now being pressed on why it initially stood by Mr Ali after he retracted his original remarks, which he described as “deeply offensive, ignorant and false”.

Government minister Lee Rowley accused the Opposition of “going to ground” after no shadow minister appeared on Tuesday’s morning media round amid the backlash.

“Where’s Labour today? Talking to people like yourselves, they’re not doing it,” he told Sky News.

Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator Pat McFadden told broadcasters the party acted because “new information and more comments have come to light which meant that we had to look at this situation again”.

On Monday, the Daily Mail published more comments in which Mr Ali allegedly blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for the suspension of Andy McDonald from the Labour Party.

A spokesperson said: “Keir Starmer has changed Labour so that it is unrecognisable from the party of 2019.

“We understand that these are highly unusual circumstances, but it is vital that any candidate put forward by Labour fully represents its aims and values.

“Given that nominations have now closed, Azhar Ali cannot be replaced as the candidate.”

Tony Lloyd death
The election follows the death of Sir Tony Lloyd (Liam McBurney/PA)

The PA news agency has contacted Mr Ali, a Lancashire county councillor, about the latest alleged comments.

The move to pull Labour backing for the candidate came just hours after shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds said Mr Ali had fallen “for an online conspiracy theory” and insisted Labour would “continue this campaign in Rochdale”.

Rishi Sunak, speaking to GB News viewers on Monday at an event in County Durham, said it was a “con” to suggest Labour has been reformed.

He said: “Keir Starmer has been running around for the last year trying to tell everybody ‘Okay, Labour Party’s changed’. Well, look what just happened in Rochdale.”

Labour’s decision will add considerable uncertainty to the outcome of the by-election when voters go to the polls at the end of the month.

Also running in Rochdale are former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, now the Reform Party candidate, and George Galloway, of the Workers Party of Britain, who is campaigning against Labour’s stance on Gaza.

About 20% of the electorate and 30% of the population of the town are Asian, with polls nationally suggesting Labour’s vote could be hit by Asian people unhappy with the party over Palestine and its perceived support for Israel.

If elected, Mr Ali will sit as an independent MP and will not receive the party whip. The decision means that Labour will also need to find a new candidate to contest the seat at the upcoming general election.

A spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “Sir Keir Starmer has blotted an otherwise fairly admirable copybook and given the public reason to doubt the earnestness of his promise to tear antisemitism out ‘by its roots’ in Labour.

“People will have to judge for themselves whether the additional reported comments by Azhar Ali are really any worse than the comments that had already been reported.”