Azhar Ali: Who is Labour's Rochdale candidate Azhar Ali? Why is there criticism about his remarks on Israel and Hamas?

Labour has been hit with criticism for standing by Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali, even after he claimed that Israel allowed Hamas to carry out its October 7 attack to provide grounds to invade Gaza

Sir Keir Starmer said he took “tough” and “decisive” action to withdraw support for Labour’s Rochdale by-election candidate, after a storm of criticism about remarks Azhar Ali made about Israel.

The Labour leader insisted the party had “changed” under his leadership after it was confirmed on Monday evening that Mr Ali, who is understood to be suspended pending an investigation, would have Labour’s backing withdrawn.

Who is Azhar Ali?

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Mr Ali is a Lancashire county councillor and the leader of the Labour group on the council. He is also a former government adviser who was made an OBE in 2020 for public service.

Mr Ali He was selected as the Labour Party candidate for the Rochdale by-election on January 27, having been a candidate for Pendle in 2015 and 2019. He was selected from a shortlist of three that included Westminster lobby journalist Paul Waugh, and Nazia Rehman, a member of Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council.

The Rochdale by-election was triggered by the death of Labour MP Tony Lloyd. Labour is defending a majority in the constituency of nearly 10,000. The by-election will be held on February 29.

What did Azhar Ali say? Has he apologised for the comments?

Speaking about the conflict on the Gaza Strip, Mr Ali is alleged to have told a Labour party meeting that Israel had "allowed" the deadly attack by Hamas gunmen on October 7.

He 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.”

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

What has Labour said about Mr Ali’s comments?

Speaking as he campaigned in Wellingborough on Tuesday, Sir Keir said: “Certain information came to light over the weekend in relation to the candidate. There was a fulsome apology. Further information came to light yesterday calling for decisive action, so I took decisive action.

“It is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during the course of a by-election. It’s a tough decision, a necessary decision, but when I say the Labour Party has changed under my leadership I mean it.”

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Labour had come under serious pressure after the original remarks emerged, with the comments condemned by figures inside the party as well as by political opponents.

Sir Keir sought to move his party on from the Corbyn era, which was overshadowed by controversies over anti-Semitism.

But the party leadership is now being pressed on why Mr Ali had not been immediately suspended after the comments emerged.

It is too late for Labour to withdrawn Mr Ali as a candidate for the Rochdale by-election, with the deadline having passed on February 2. However, 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.

What have critics said about Labour’s position?

Labour’s handling of the row was branded “shambolic” by the lawyer who led a review into the party’s culture, as the Conservatives also seized on the controversy.

Martin Forde KC said MPs within the party feel there has been a “disparity in treatment” of allegations of anti-Semitism.

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.

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Left-wing critics of the Starmer leadership accused him of showing inconsistency in the handling of the allegations.

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.

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 per cent of the electorate and 30 per cent 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.

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