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Sir Keir Starmer was on Tuesday hit by the fallout of his chaotic handling of a row over alleged antisemitic remarks by Labour’s candidate in the Rochdale by-election.
The Labour leader was accused by the leftwing of his party of presiding over a “shambles” and operating double standards after deciding on Monday night to suspend Azhar Ali having originally backed him.
Supporters of former leader Jeremy Corbyn said Starmer had shown he was willing to take decisive action over alleged antisemitic remarks by those on the left of the party, while being more lenient towards those — like Ali — on the right.
Meanwhile, Starmer was left facing the prospect of losing the seat, previously held by Sir Tony Lloyd who died in January, after bookmakers installed George Galloway, the firebrand former Labour MP, as the new favourite to win the contest on February 29.
Galloway’s Workers party has sought to exploit Labour tensions over Starmer’s stance on the war in Gaza. It has portrayed the contest in a leaflet as a “straight choice between George who will fight for Palestine” and Starmer who will “fight for Israel”.
Starmer originally agreed to let Ali continue as Labour’s candidate after a report at the weekend that the Lancashire county councillor had claimed Israel had deliberately relaxed its guard ahead of the Hamas attacks on the Jewish state on October 7 to give it a pretext to launch an assault on Gaza.
Shadow ministers were sent on to the airwaves to defend Ali pointing out that he had apologised. But late on Monday, the party said it was withdrawing its support after “new information” about Ali’s comments had come to light.
The Daily Mail reported it had obtained an audio tape in which Ali blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for fuelling criticism of a pro-Palestinian Labour MP.
Because nominations for the contest have closed, Ali will appear on ballot papers as a Labour candidate, even though the party has formally withdrawn its support; he would not sit as a Labour MP if elected.
Martin Forde, a KC who carried out an independent review into allegations of racism and bullying in the Labour party, told the BBC it would have been “sensible” to withdraw support for Ali when his comments first emerged.
He said there was a perception among some left-wing MPs “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”.
Andrew Fisher, former head of policy under Corbyn’s leadership, said Starmer’s handling of the issue had been “a shambles” and that it revealed “double standards in the Labour party”.
Fisher said that Ali had been given the benefit of the doubt by the party leadership. “That doesn’t apply to people on the left, ever,” he said.
Pat McFadden, Labour’s head of campaigns, defended Starmer. “The fact you have got very rare circumstances where a political party is withdrawing support for a candidate after nominations have closed” showed that the leader was serious about “rooting antisemitism out of the Labour party”.
Voters in the Rochdale by-election will now face the extraordinary situation where there are three former Labour candidates on the ballot paper but no officially endorsed party candidate.
Apart from Ali and Galloway, the contest is also being fought by Simon Danczuk, a former Labour MP for Rochdale who is standing for the populist Reform UK party.
Danczuk was suspended by Labour in 2015 over allegations he sent explicit messages to a teenage girl; he subsequently accepted that his behaviour was “inappropriate” and apologised.
Danczuk said his campaign would now concentrate on stopping Galloway. “My campaign will be to tell the electorate that they will not want an MP who would prioritise Palestine over Rochdale,” he said. “If elected, I will prioritise Rochdale over Palestine.”