Labour declines to suspend Rochdale by-election candidate over Israel comments

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Labour has defended its decision not to suspend the party’s candidate in the Rochdale by-election after he sparked an antisemitism dispute by claiming Israel had allowed Hamas to attack on October 7.

Sir Keir Starmer’s team fear that if Azhar Ali was suspended, it could exacerbate community tensions in Rochdale and help the rival campaign of pro-Palestinian candidate and former Labour MP George Galloway.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow cabinet office minister, said Ali had fallen for a conspiracy theory that Israel had deliberately relaxed its guard ahead of Hamas’s October 7 attacks to give it a pretext to attack Gaza.

“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,” Thomas-Symonds told the BBC.

He said Ali recognised “the need now to do tremendous amounts of work to rebuild trust with the Jewish community”, adding: “So it’s for those reasons that he hasn’t been suspended.”

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The by-election in Rochdale, north-west England, will take place on February 29 and it is too late now for Labour to remove Ali’s name from the ballot paper because nominations closed at the beginning of the month.

Ali had told a meeting of Labour members soon after the October 7 attack that Israel “deliberately took the security off”, according to a recording first reported by the Mail on Sunday.

“They allowed . . . that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want,” he added. Ali has apologised for the comments.

The Conservative party has called on Starmer to suspend Ali from Labour and to withdraw campaign support.

The Conservatives posted on X on Sunday: “Same old Labour. They haven’t changed. Why is Keir Starmer’s Labour standing by this?”

In a sign that the opposition party is trying to shore up Ali, former Labour MP Louise Ellman, who quit the party over alleged antisemitism during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, spoke up for the candidate.

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Ellman, who subsequently rejoined Labour, said: “I have known Azhar for over 20 years and he consistently supported me when I was subjected to antisemitic attacks.”

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

Bookmakers William Hill has Labour at 4/11 to win the seat, which fell vacant after the death last month of Labour MP Tony Lloyd, with Galloway, who is standing for the Workers party, at 2-1.

Labour has previously suspended MPs over comments about the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Last month, leftwing Labour MP Kate Osamor was suspended by the party for listing the war in Gaza among recent examples of genocide in a message about Holocaust Memorial Day. She apologised for the comment.