Rochdale by-election: Formal complaint filed against Labour candidate after 'antisemitic' remarks

12 February 2024, 18:16 | Updated: 12 February 2024, 19:49

The Labour Party has received an official complaint about its candidate in the Rochdale by-election following "antisemitic" comments about the 7 October attack on Israel, Sky News has learned.

Labour Against Antisemitism (LAAS), a campaign group founded by Labour members to combat antisemitism within the party, is calling for councillor Azhar Ali's immediate suspension as a candidate and party member after he suggested Israel deliberately allowed the Hamas atrocity to take place in order to give it the "green light" to invade Gaza.

Politics live: Labour in 'crisis' over Rochdale candidate

Although Mr Ali issued an "unreserved" apology for the "deeply offensive, ignorant and false" comments, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is under pressure to withdraw support for him in light of previous remarks he has made about "tearing out" antisemitism by its roots.

Alex Hearn, who is a director of the campaign group and member of the Labour Party, submitted a formal complaint against Mr Ali this afternoon in which he wrote: "The accusation that Jews plotted a massacre of innocent people for their own bloodthirsty gain is antisemitic."

In a statement, LAAS, which is not affiliated with the Labour Party, told Sky News: "We were appalled by Mr Ali's comments and call for his immediate suspension.

"Sir Keir Starmer has made good progress fighting antisemitism in the Labour Party, but this episode shows that more needs to be done or it risks becoming a bigger problem."

Once a complaint is submitted, Labour's complaints team verifies that the person being complained about is a party member, after which they determine whether the complaint warrants investigation.

Labour has been approached for comment.

Shadow cabinet ministers have stood by Mr Ali so far.

Asked about the comments by Sky News this morning, shadow minister without portfolio, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said they were "completely wrong... totally unacceptable and they in no way represent the views of the Labour Party".

However, he claimed the councillor had fallen for an "online conspiracy theory and that does not represent his view".

Mr Thomas-Symonds added: "What Councillor Ali also said here is that he apologises unreservedly, he retracts the comments.

"And he's also said, which I think is hugely important, that he understands now the gravity, the scale, the offence that's been caused and knows he needs to rebuild trust.

"[He has a] huge task ahead of him with the Jewish community, and that is what I would now expect him to get on to do."

Mike Katz, national chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), which is formally affiliated with the Labour Party, has described Mr Ali's comments as "reprehensible" and said the group will not be campaigning in Rochdale.

However, JLM is not calling for the Labour Party to formally withdraw its support from Mr Ali, saying allowing Workers' Party of Britain candidate George Galloway to win the seat will give him a "parliamentary platform to spew hate and sow division" that will "harm the Jewish community far more than electing [Mr] Ali".

Mr Ali, a former government adviser who was made an OBE in 2020 for public service, was selected last month to contest the poll, caused by the death of Sir Tony Lloyd, and is defending a Labour majority of more than 9,000.

In a statement after Mr Ali's comments emerged, Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden said: "Time after time, Sir Keir Starmer says that he's changed Labour. Time after time we're seeing that simply isn't true.

"While vile racist slurs are freely exchanged within Sir Keir Starmer's Labour Party, it is unfit to hold public office."

Meanwhile, spokesman for Reform UK, Gawain Towler, said: "I find it absolutely extraordinary that Labour frontbenchers are being sent out to work for this guy, knowing his comments, which are worse than anything people have been suspended for.

"The only thing I can think of is they are terrified of George Galloway so they are trying to out-extreme him. It is truly shocking."

A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said: "These comments are completely unacceptable. Hamas's terrorist atrocities on 7th October were an act of unspeakable evil.

"The Liberal Democrats are calling for an immediate bilateral ceasefire."

A spokesman for the Workers' Party of Britain said: "Mr Ali has described his own words and views as 'stupid, ignorant, offensive and false'. Why should anyone vote for him then?

"Our election slogan is 'For Gaza. For Rochdale'. We are unapologetically pro-Gaza, pro-Palestine. And it is that message which resonates across Rochdale: young and old, white and black."

See below the full list of candidates and the political parties they represent:

Azhar Ali, Labour Party
Mark Coleman, Independent
Simon Danczuk, Reform UK
Iain Donaldson, Liberal Democrats
Paul Ellison, The Conservative Party Candidate
George Galloway, Workers' Party of Britain
Michael Howarth, Independent
William Howarth, Independent
Guy Otten, Green Party
Ravin Subortna, The Official Monster Raving Loony Party
David Tully, Independent