Sir Keir Starmer insists he has 'torn anti-Semitism out of Labour' with swift action over Rochdale candidate

13 February 2024, 13:23 | Updated: 13 February 2024, 14:41

Sir Keir Starmer has been criticised for the delay in dropping support for Mr Ali
Sir Keir Starmer has been criticised for the delay in dropping support for Mr Ali. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

Sir Keir Starmer has said had made it his mission to tear anti-Semitism out of Labour - as the late decision to end the party's support for its Rochdale by-election candidate was branded "shambolic".

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The party dropped all backing for Azhar Ali after it emerged he claimed Israel allowed Hamas to launch the October 7 massacre as an excuse to attack Gaza in revenge.

Labour did not immediately remove its endorsement of Mr Ali but Sir Keir U-turned and totally dropped support as more comments emerged on Monday.

"Certain information came to light over the weekend in relation to the candidate, there was a fulsome apology," he said on Tuesday.

"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.

Sir Keir Starmer is facing criticism after finally U-turning on supporting the Rochdale candidate
Sir Keir Starmer is facing criticism after finally U-turning on supporting the Rochdale candidate. Picture: Alamy

"It was a tough decision and a necessary decision but when I say the Labour Party has changed under my leadership, I mean it."

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He added: "I set out, four years ago, to tear anti-Semitism out of the Labour Party. It's the first thing I said I'd do as Labour leader... I've taken a series of decisions along those lines, ruthlessly changing our party."

The KC who investigated racism in the party following criticism of how antisemitism complaints were handled said Labour's U-turn "appears shambolic".

Read more: Labour withdraws support for Rochdale by-election candidate after Israel conspiracy theory remarks

Martin Forde said Labour should have dumped him the moment the initial comments were put out by the Mail on Sunday.

"It seems to me that the moment that anyone says that the Israeli authorities allowed the atrocities to occur, that has to bring their judgment into question.

Mr Ali is thought to have been suspended
Mr Ali is thought to have been suspended. Picture: Alamy

"One does have to question how such individuals are selected in the first place and also the disparity in treatment because one of the things that concerned us when we talked about weaponisation was certainly the perception that antisemitism was along factional lines."

He added: "I'm aware from discussions with some of the MPs within the party - who might be described as left-leaning - that they feel 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."

It is impossible to replace Mr Ali as the party's candidate ahead of the vote on February 29 because nominations have closed and the ballot can't be changed.

Read more: Rochdale by-election | Full list of candidates

But it is understood Mr Ali has been suspended pending an investigation.

He has apologised "to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments".

After the initial comments emerged, further remarks were published.

The Mail said Mr Ali was recorded saying Israel hoped to "grab" Gaza from the Palestinians and blaming "people in the media from certain Jewish quarters" for the suspension of Andy McDonald from the party after his statement about Israel and Palestine.

Labour confirmed it was ending its backing for Mr Ali on Monday night.

"Keir Starmer has changed Labour so that it is unrecognisable from the party of 2019," a spokesperson said.

"We understand that these are highly unusual circumstances but it is vital that any candidate put forward by Labour fully represents its aims and values.

"Given that nominations have now closed Azhar Ali cannot be replaced as the candidate."

Reports suggest Labour activists are now turning their attention to stopping George Galloway, formerly of their party, from winning.

They have weighed up supporting another former Labour MP, Simon Danczuk, who previously represented the constituency for them.

"Simon may be the best way of keeping [George Galloway] out. It's the devil and the deep blue sea," activists told The Guardian.