Sir Keir Starmer’s handling of accusations of anti-semitism levelled at Labour’s Rochdale by-election candidate has been labelled “shambolic” by the lawyer who led a review into anti-semitism in the party.
Martin Forde KC, who led an investigation into the party under Jeremy Corbyn, criticised the current Labour leader for failing to act sooner.
Starmer initially stood by Azhar Ali after it emerged he had suggested that Israel deliberately relaxed its security in October, ahead of the Hamas attacks, following warnings of an iminent threat. But he later withdrew his support for the candidate yesterday evening, saying “new information” had emerged.
Yesterday morning, Labour’s national campaign coordinator Pat McFadden said: “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.”
Sir Keir Starmer’s handling of accusations of anti-semitism levelled at Labour’s Rochdale by-election candidate has been labelled “shambolic”
But yesterday evening, a party spokesperson said: “Following new information about further comments made by Azhar Ali coming to light today, the Labour Party has withdrawn its support for Azhar Ali as our candidate in the Rochdale by-election.
“Keir Starmer has changed Labour so that it is unrecognisable from the party of 2019. 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.”
Hitting out at the party’s handling of the situation, Forde said: “If you want a fair and transparent system then it has to deal with people consistently.
“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.
Forde noted that Labour MPs Diane Abbott and Kate Osamor had both apologised immediately after they were accused of antisemitism, but that “things seemed to drag on in terms of disciplining certain elements of the party, and be dealt with swiftly in others”.
He added: “This was a very inflammatory thing [for Ali] to say. That there is some complicity to justify retaliatory attacks was clearly antisemitic.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “Sir Keir Starmer has blotted an otherwise fairly admirable copybook and given the public reason to doubt the earnestness of his promise to tear antisemitism out ‘by its roots’ in Labour.
“People will have to judge for themselves whether the additional reported comments by Azhar Ali are really any worse than the comments that had already been reported.”
But responding to his remarks today, Starmer denied that factionalism played a role in the handling of complaints of antisemitism, saying it makes “no difference to me where somebody stands in the Labour Party”.
Starmer denied that factionalism played a role in the handling of complaints of antisemitism
He said: “I set out four years ago to tear antisemitism out of the Labour Party. It’s the first thing I said I’d do as Labour leader, and to change our party.
“I have taken a series of decisions along those lines ruthlessly changing our party, and it’s made no difference to me where somebody stands in the Labour Party.
“The change I’ve brought about is a Labour Party that is now back in the service of working people.”
On a visit to Wellingborough, the Labour leader added: “Those comments were appalling and that is why we took decisive action. It is virtually unprecedented to withdraw support for a candidate in the way I withdrew support from this candidate yesterday.
“That’s what a changed Labour Party is all about.
“Of course, any allegation will be fully investigated by the party, but the important thing is the decisive action that’s been taken to make it absolutely clear that this is a changed Labour Party.”
Pressed on whether those present at the event would be investigated, Sir Keir added: “Any allegation that needs to be investigated will be investigated.”
Ali was heard saying: “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.”
He has since apologised “unreservedly to the Jewish community” for the remarks, admitting that they were “deeply offensive”.