Labour by-election candidate apologises for ‘deeply offensive’ Israel claims
Azhar Ali remains Labour’s candidate in the Rochdale by-election, which was triggered by the death of MP Sir Tony Lloyd.
A Labour by-election candidate has apologised for his “deeply offensive” comments, after he reportedly said Israel allowed Hamas to carry out its October 7 attack to provide grounds to invade Gaza.
Azhar Ali remains Labour’s candidate in Rochdale despite his remarks being described as “totally reprehensible” by Jewish groups and calls from the Tories to remove him.
He was recorded making the comments at a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party, according to The Mail on Sunday.
The newspaper reported that Mr Ali told the meeting: “The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel 10 days earlier … 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.”
Hamas launched an attack on southern Israel on October 7 last year, in which 1,300 people were killed and more than 240 kidnapped. Israel has retaliated with months of attacks on the Gaza Strip, killing and wounding thousands.
Mr Ali is also reported to have said that Sir Keir Starmer had “lost the confidence” of some of his MPs on the issue.
Mr Ali, a Lancashire county councillor and former government adviser who was made an OBE in 2020 for public service, said: “I apologise unreservedly to the Jewish community for my comments which were deeply offensive, ignorant and false.
“Hamas’s horrific terror attack was the responsibility of Hamas alone, and they are still holding hostages who must be released.
“October 7 was the greatest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust, and Jews in the UK and across the world are living in fear of rising antisemitism. I will urgently apologise to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments.
“The Labour Party has changed unrecognisably under Keir Starmer’s leadership, he has my full support in delivering the change Britain needs.”
Pat McFadden, Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator, said Mr Ali’s comments were “completely wrong”.
“He should never have said something like that,” he told Sky’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips.
“It is, of course, completely wrong to say that. I saw this last night, he’s issued a complete apology and retraction. And I hope he learns a good lesson from it because he should never have said something like that in the first place.”
Asked if he will be Labour’s candidate for the by-election, Mr McFadden said “yes he will”.
The deadline to replace Mr Ali as a candidate has passed.
Conservative Cabinet minister Michael Gove said: “Sir Keir Starmer cannot continue to support this candidacy.”
Mike Katz, the national chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, said his group will not campaign in Rochdale, but stopped short of calling on Labour to withdraw support for Mr Ali.
He tweeted: “Azhar Ali’s comments are totally reprehensible. But this close to polling day, electoral law says he will be Labour’s candidate, whatever Starmer says or does now.
“Ali’s destroyed his past record of allyship with the Jewish community and has a mountain to climb to repair it.
“Fact is, alternative in Rochdale is George Galloway. Giving him a parliamentary platform to spew hate & sow division will harm the Jewish community far more than electing Ali.”
Mr Ali’s comments were also seized on by some as evidence that Sir Keir has failed to change his party since Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, when the party was embroiled in an antisemitism row.
Mr Katz said: “We know how far the party has come under Keir Starmer in tackling antisemitism and that the party, from Starmer down, is as shocked and disgusted by Ali’s comments as we are. This proves there is still much work to do.”
Dame Louise Ellman, who rejoined Labour after quitting over Mr Corbyn’s handling of antisemitism, criticised Mr Ali’s “outrageous and deeply offensive” remarks but said they were “out of character”.
“I have known Azhar for over twenty years and he consistently supported me when I was subjected to antisemitic attacks,” she said.
“He should now have the opportunity to work with the Jewish community to restore the loss of trust his actions have caused.”
Joe Glasman, head of political and government investigations at Campaign Against Antisemitism, said: “Today we learned that Azhar Ali, Labour’s candidate for Parliament in Rochdale, claimed that Israel engineered the murder of over 1,200 of its own people, the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, in order to justify an incursion into Gaza.
“It is a blood libel. This man does not belong in a major political party, let alone in Parliament, yet Labour is, incredibly, still backing his candidacy after a quick apology.
“This is distressingly familiar to days that Sir Keir Starmer promised were behind us. This is not tearing antisemitism out ‘by its roots’.
“Recently, Sir Keir has admirably acted swiftly against Labour MPs including Diane Abbott and Kate Osamor. This sudden inconsistency is deeply alarming. Labour must urgently re-examine this obscene decision if its leader is to be regarded as a man of his word.”
Former Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson said it is “shocking” Labour is not dropping Mr Ali as a candidate.
“How can they possibly still support him as a candidate? It’s also too late to take him off the ballot,” Mr Anderson tweeted.
Also running in Rochdale is political firebrand George Galloway, of the Workers Party of Britain, who is campaigning against Labour’s stance on the conflict in Gaza, and former Rochdale Labour MP Simon Danczuk, now the Reform Party candidate.
About 20% of the electorate and 30% of the population of the town are Asian, with polls nationally suggesting Labour’s vote could be hit by Asian people unhappy with the party over Palestine and its perceived support for Israel.
The Palestinian death toll stands at almost 28,000 after four months of war, according to Gazan health officials.
Sir Tony held the Rochdale seat for Labour at the 2019 election with a 9,668 majority over the Conservatives.
Voters go to the polls on February 29.