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Starmer slammed for sticking by Rochdale candidate despite his 'antisemitic conspiracy theory' rant

Starmer slammed for sticking by Rochdale candidate despite his 'antisemitic conspiracy theory' rant

Sir Keir Starmer came under growing pressure to cut adrift Labour’s Rochdale by-election candidate as a shadow minister admitted he had repeated an “antisemitic conspiracy theory”.

Labour was on Monday morning still standing by Azhar Ali as its candidate in the by-election on February 29 even after he claimed that Israel deliberately allowed the October 7 massacre of more than 1,200 citizens by Hamas to happen.

Mr Ali apologised for his “deeply offensive” comments after he was recorded suggesting at a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party that Israel had left the door open for the terror group to carry out its horrific attack to provide grounds to invade Gaza.But Labour’s decision to stick by Mr Ali has been heavily criticised, especially given the stance Sir Keir has taken against other Labour figures who have made offensive or controversial comments.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Nick Thomas-Symonds tried to defend the decision not to pull Labour campaign support for Mr Ali or to suspend him from the party.

He was repeatedly pressed by LBC presenter Nick Ferrari whether the remarks were antisemitic.

Mr Thomas-Symonds eventually said: “The conspiracy theory is one of a range of antisemitic conspiracy theories...He is saying, and I take this at entirely at face value, that he fell for an online conspiracy theory.

“I don’t believe he is antisemitic and that’s why we continue to support him.”

But the row shone the spotlight on Sir Keir’s judgement and sparked fresh questions over Labour’s stance against antisemitism.

Tory party chairman Richard Holden said: “The fury over @CllrAzharAli’s warped comments themselves is dwarfed only by the catastrophically tin-eared failure of response from Sir @Keir_Starmer.”

The deadline to remove Mr Ali from the ballot paper has passed, so he will remain Labour’s official candidate, but the party could withdraw campaign support.

The Tories have called for the aspiring MP’s campaign to be suspended and his Labour Party membership removed.

In a recording obtained by The Mail on Sunday, Mr Ali reportedly said: “The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel 10 days earlier ... Americans warned them a day before (that) there’s something happening.

“They deliberately took the security off, they allowed ... that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want.”

Hamas launched an attack on southern Israel on October 7 last year, in which more than 1,200 people were killed and more than 240 kidnapped. Israel has retaliated with months of attacks on the Gaza Strip, killing more than 28,000, according to local health officials.

Mr Ali, a Lancashire county councillor and former government adviser who was made an OBE in 2020 for public service, on Sunday said: “I apologise unreservedly to the Jewish community for my comments which were deeply offensive, ignorant and false.

“Hamas’s horrific terror attack was the responsibility of Hamas alone, and they are still holding hostages who must be released.”

He promised to “urgently apologise to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments”, saying that “the Labour Party has changed unrecognisably under Keir Starmer’s leadership”.

But Mr Ali’s remarks were seized on by some as evidence that Labour has failed to root out antisemitism after the Corbyn era.

Joe Glasman, head of political and government investigations at Campaign Against Antisemitism, said: “This man does not belong in a major political party, let alone in Parliament, yet Labour is, incredibly, still backing his candidacy after a quick apology.

“This is distressingly familiar to days that Sir Keir Starmer promised were behind us. This is not tearing antisemitism out ‘by its roots’.”

Labour recently suspended the MP Kate Osamor after she appeared to say the Gaza war should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Diane Abbott has also been suspended as a Labour MP after she wrote a letter suggesting that Jewish people did not suffer racism “all their lives”.

Mr Glasman said the “inconsistency” in deciding not to suspend Mr Ali “is deeply alarming” and must be “urgently re-examine(d)”.

Mike Katz, the national chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, said his group would not campaign in Rochdale as Mr Ali had “destroyed his past record of allyship with the Jewish community” with his “totally reprehensible” comments.

But he stopped short of calling on Labour to drop the candidate, warning that the “alternative in Rochdale is George Galloway” whose victory would “harm the Jewish community far more than electing Ali”.

He added: “We know how far the party has come under Keir Starmer in tackling antisemitism and that the party, from Starmer down, is as shocked and disgusted by Ali’s comments as we are.”

Dame Louise Ellman, who rejoined Labour after quitting over Mr Corbyn’s handling of antisemitism, criticised Mr Ali’s “outrageous and deeply offensive” remarks but said they were “out of character”.

“I have known Azhar for over twenty years and he consistently supported me when I was subjected to antisemitic attacks,” she said.

“He should now have the opportunity to work with the Jewish community to restore the loss of trust his actions have caused.”

As well as reigniting a row over antisemitism in the party, Mr Ali’s comments could highlight divisions within Labour over its stance on the Gaza conflict.

The Labour leadership’s initial refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire faced serious criticism from within the party ranks.

Sir Keir has since hardened his tone towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and backed the Government’s call for a sustainable ceasefire as the Palestinian death toll has mounted.

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

About 20 per cent of the electorate and 30 per ent 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.