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Unfair to draw wider conclusions from candidate’s Israel claims: shadow minister

A shadow minister has insisted it would be “unfair” to conclude there is a problem with Labour in Rochdale amid criticism of remarks about Israel made by the party’s constituency candidate.

Nick Thomas-Symonds said he believed that Azhar Ali, who claimed the country had allowed Hamas to inflict its October 7 attack, had fallen “for an online conspiracy theory.”

The Labour hopeful has apologised after he was recorded suggesting in a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party that Israel had taken the assault as a pretext to invade Gaza.

It was put to Mr Thomas-Symonds that nobody at the gathering appeared to object to these remarks when they were made.

Asked whether the incident reflected a problem at large with the Labour Party in Rochdale, the shadow minister without portfolio told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve got, as I understand it, a short clip from a meeting, so I think it would be unfair to draw a wider conclusion in that way.”

On why Mr Ali has not been suspended, Mr Thomas-Symonds said: “Well, let me first say the remarks that have been made are completely and utterly unacceptable. I was very shocked and appalled to see them and they in no way represent the views of the Labour Party.

“Councillor Ali has apologised unreservedly. He’s retracted those remarks and he’s also shown a sense of the gravity of the offence that has been caused and the need to do now tremendous amounts of work to rebuild trust with the Jewish community which is going to be absolutely essential.

“So it’s for those reasons he hasn’t been suspended and why we will now continue this campaign in Rochdale.”

Asked whether he believes the candidate has genuinely changed his mind following the remarks, Mr Thomas-Symonds said: “I do take what Councillor Ali has said at face value that he fell for an online conspiracy theory.”

The deadline to remove Mr Ali from the ballot paper has passed, 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.

Mr Ali, a Lancashire county councillor and former government adviser who was made an OBE in 2020 for public service, said on Sunday: “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 some seized on his remarks as evidence that Labour has failed to root out antisemitism following controversies during 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.

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.”

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 has 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 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% 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.