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Labour was embroiled in a fresh row over antisemitism on Sunday after it was revealed that its candidate for an upcoming by-election espoused conspiracy theories about Israel.
Azhar Ali, Labour’s candidate in the North West seat of Rochdale, suggested at a meeting of members soon after Hamas launched its October 7 attack on Israel that the Jewish state had deliberately relaxed its guard after warnings of an imminent threat.
“Americans warned them a day before [that] there’s something happening . . . They deliberately took the security off. They allowed . . . that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want,” he said in a recording first reported in the Daily Mail newspaper.
Israel launched its offensive on Gaza after Hamas militants stormed the country on October 7 last year, killing 1,200 people and taking another 250 hostage, according to Israeli officials.
The Palestinian health ministry in Gaza said on Saturday that 117 people had been killed across the territory overnight, pushing the total death toll from Israel’s land and air offensive to more than 28,000.
The Rochdale candidate’s comments triggered the Labour party to issue a statement in which Ali apologised to the Jewish community for his “deeply offensive, ignorant, and false” remarks.
Pat McFadden, Labour’s campaign chief, told the BBC on Sunday that Ali’s remarks were “completely wrong” and did not reflect the Labour party’s position. “I was appalled when I saw it. It’s quite right that he apologised and completely retracted, and I hope he learns a lesson from it,” he said.
Labour was facing accusations that it had failed to root out antisemitism within the party, a central pledge of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, while Ali’s comments threatened further tensions in an already toxic by-election.
The Conservatives posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Sunday: “Same old Labour. They haven’t changed. Why is Keir Starmer’s Labour standing by this?”
The Rochdale by-election will take place on February 29. Nominations for candidates closed at the beginning of the month. Labour is unable to remove Ali from the ballot paper as its candidate, but it can withdraw campaign support.
Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, said that Ali’s comments threatened to exacerbate a row over how the party had handled voters’ concerns about Israel and Palestine.
He added that the affair threatened to feed into the hands of fringe candidates, including George Galloway, a former firebrand leftwing MP, who has framed himself as the pro-Palestinian candidate in the seat and sent out pamphlets deriding Starmer’s pro-Israel position.
“There’s definitely a stronger chance of Galloway coming in than 24 hours ago. This has not helped Labour, this is very bad for Labour,” Ford said.
Many Labour MPs fear a backlash over the party’s slow response to Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza strip, while worrying that its vote in Rochdale will be “squeezed” by Galloway and ex-Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who is standing for the rightwing Reform party.
About 19 per cent of the electorate in Rochdale are Muslim, while recent polling suggested that the party had experienced a 26 percentage point dip in support from the demographic compared with the 2019 general election.
Campaigners said the poll findings commissioned by the Muslim Labour Network underscored hostility to Labour over its response to the war in Gaza.