Starmer under pressure over handling of antisemitism row in Rochdale by-election


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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 insisted he had taken “decisive action” in withdrawing support from Azhar Ali on Monday night, but he was accused of presiding over a “shambles” having originally agreed to stand by him.

Supporters of former leader Jeremy Corbyn said Starmer was guilty of double standards and was willing to take instant action over alleged antisemitic remarks by those on the left of the party, while being more lenient towards those — like Ali — on the right.

Starmer pledged to root out antisemitism from Labour’s ranks on becoming leader in 2020 after his far-left predecessor Corbyn was heavily criticised for his handling of allegations of abuse.

“Further information came to light yesterday calling for decisive action, so I took decisive action,” Starmer said. “It is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during the course of a by-election.”

Bookmakers have now installed George Galloway, the firebrand former Labour MP, as the new favourite to win the contest on February 29, triggered by the death of Sir Tony Lloyd last month.

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 let Hamas attack on October 7 to give it a pretext to launch an assault on Gaza.

Shadow ministers publicly defended 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for the contest have closed, Ali will appear on ballot papers as a Labour candidate, even though the party has formally withdrawn its support.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 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.

Video: Sketchy Politics: the rules of the electoral race

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