- Written by Becky Morton and Sam Francis
- BBC political correspondents
Labor has withdrawn its support for Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali over comments he apparently made about Israel and the Jewish people.
Labor had sided with Mr Ali when he claimed that Israel had allowed the October 7 attacks by Hamas as a pretext to invade Gaza.
But it changed its position after Mr Ali apparently blamed Jewish media figures for stirring up criticism against the pro-Palestinian Labor MP.
Mr. Ali has been contacted for comment.
He will remain listed as the Labor candidate on the ballot paper because under electoral law it is too late to replace him.
However, it is understood that Mr Ali has been suspended from the party pending an investigation.
Labor spent days defending him as a candidate, after the Mail on Sunday newspaper published comments by Mr Ali, in which he claimed Israel had “allowed” the Hamas attack.
Mr. Ali subsequently apologized “to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments.”
On Monday evening, the Daily Mail published a full recording, purporting to be from Ali, in which he blames “people in the media from some Jewish quarters” for the suspension of Andy MacDonald from the Labor Party.
MacDonald was suspended last year after saying: “We will not rest until we get justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful freedom.”
The person on the recording goes on to say that Israel planned to “get rid of… [Palestinians] From Gaza” and “seizing” the land.
He also appears to be boasting about banning the flying of Israeli flags on local public buildings following the deadly attack by Hamas gunmen on October 7.
Labour's national campaign coordinator, Pat McFadden, said Ali had been suspended after “further comments” emerged.
Mr McFadden said that “the fact that you have very rare circumstances where a political party withdraws its support for a candidate after nominations have closed” showed Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer was serious about “rooting out anti-Semitism from the Labor Party”.
The Labor Party has faced intense pressure since Ali's comments first emerged, with widespread condemnation from party members and his political opponents.
MPs Lisa Nandy and Anneliese Dodds were out campaigning for Mr Ali at the weekend, and shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds was defending Labour's decision to back him on Monday morning.
Martin Ford, who led a review into allegations of bullying and racism in Labour, said the handling of the issue was “absolutely shameful” and it was “reasonable” to withdraw support for Mr Ali when his comments first emerged.
The senior lawyer told BBC Radio 4's Today program that there is a perception among some left-leaning MPs “that when it comes to disciplinary action taken against them things move rather slowly, but if you are in the right-wing faction of the party, as is the case… With “was”, then things are dealt with either more leniently or more quickly.
However, former Labor MP Lord Mann, now an independent adviser to the government on anti-Semitism, told the BBC: “I think it is actually a very bold decision, essentially getting rid of a parliamentary seat.”
He added: “I think the Jewish community, he reflects, will take a great deal of comfort from the fact that Sir Keir Starmer was willing to do this.”
By Hannah Miller, political reporter
The row over Mr Ali still raises two key questions for Sir Keir Starmer's leadership: Why was the saga allowed to continue for almost 48 hours? Is anti-Semitism being “weaponized” along sectional lines, as Mr. Ford suggested?
There is a kind of textbook for how these stories often turn out — the initial story, the political reaction, followed by new information that usually makes the situation worse.
From his front podium, Sir Keir is trying to claim he took “swift” action as soon as the new details emerged, but as one Labor MP said this morning, he was “about 20 hours too late”.
Meanwhile, the party's left wing is angry that the cases of MPs Andy McDonald and Kate Osamor, who were also suspended over comments relating to the war in Gaza, have not been given the same benefit of the doubt initially given to Mr Ali. .
The decision has been made and Sir Keir has imposed his authority over his party once again, but the Labor leader is open to accusations that he is politically incompetent. The row will remind onlookers that despite Sir Keir's efforts, there is still much division within the Labor Party.
Labour's decision to withdraw support from Mr Ali, who was chosen to represent the seat after the death of Sir Tony Lloyd, means he is also unlikely to be selected by the party to stand in this year's general election.
This will add an extra layer of uncertainty to the results of the February 29 by-election in Rochdale, where Labor has a majority of more than 9,000 votes.
Also running are former Labor MP Simon Danchuk, now the Reform Party candidate, and George Galloway, of Britain's Labor Party, who is campaigning against Labour's position on Gaza.
Paul Ellison, a local business owner and activist, represents the Conservatives, while Ian Donaldson represents the Liberal Democrats.
Jay Otten's name will appear on the ballot for the Green Party, but he said he would not campaign for the seat after comments appeared in which he criticized Palestinians and Islam.
A spokesman for the Campaign Against Antisemitism said the decision to withdraw support for Ali was “the worst ever”.
The spokesperson added: “Rather than appearing as a principled decision, Labor withdrawing its support for its candidate at this late stage appears appropriately like a failed attempt to defend him.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak accused Labor of withdrawing its support for Mr Ali only because of “enormous media pressure”.
“This is not on principle,” Mr Sunak said.
In recent months, Labor has suspended two of its MPs over comments related to the conflict, including Mr McDonald.
In January, Kate Osamor removed the party whip after she said Gaza should be remembered as a genocide in a post about Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Israel declared war on Hamas after the group led an attack on communities inside Israel, killing about 1,200 people.
Since then, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, more than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed and 68,000 injured when Israel launched missiles and ground operations into the Gaza Strip in response.
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