UK’s Rochdale candidate loses Labour Party backing over antisemitic remarks but remains on ballot

Britain’s opposition Labour Party reversed course on Monday, deciding to pull support for Rochdale candidate Azhar Ali after more comments deriding Israel and Jews came to light. 

The Labour Party initially spent days defending Azhar Ali as a candidate in a Feb. 29 special election for the House of Commons seat representing Rochdale, a constituency in northwest England, after the Daily Mail published remarks he made during a local party meeting last year claiming Israel allowed Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack to happen as a pretext to invade Gaza.

Ali, who was selected as the Labour candidate last month, apologized, and senior Labour figures called the comments ‘totally unacceptable,’ but the party did not immediately suspend him. After increasing pressure, however, Labour said Monday that while it was too late to replace Ali on the ballot, the party had ‘withdrawn its support’ for him.

‘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,’ the party said in a statement.

The Daily Mail published a longer recording Monday in which Ali is allegedly heard blaming ‘people in the media from certain Jewish quarters’ for Andy McDonald’s suspension last year. 

The Labour Party suspended McDonald, MP for Middlesbrough, after he used the phrase ‘from the river and the sea,’ which calls for the erasure of the Jewish state, in a speech at a pro-Palestinian rally, the BBC reported. The man believed to be Ali on the recording goes on to insist Israel plotted to ‘get rid of [Palestinians] from Gaza’ and ‘grab’ the land.

Ali will still remain on the ballot despite the antisemitic remarks. He was suspended from Labour pending an investigation, meaning that he would sit as an independent lawmaker if he is elected.

Since taking the helm of Labour in 2020, leader Keir Starmer has steered the social democratic party back toward the political middle ground after the divisive tenure of predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch socialist who advocated nationalization of key industries and infrastructure.

The party now has a double-digit poll lead over the governing Conservatives, with an election due to be held this year, according to the Associated Press. 

Starmer vowed to repair relations with Britain’s Jewish community and vowed to root out antisemitism that was alleged to have tainted the party under Corbyn, a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause. Corbyn was suspended from Labour in 2020 after he claimed opponents had exaggerated the scale of antisemitism in the party for ‘political reasons.’

Ali had been the front-runner to win the election, caused by the death of the previous Labour lawmaker.

Other candidates include George Galloway, a former Labour lawmaker who now represents the tiny Workers Party and is campaigning against Labour’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war. The party has criticized Israel’s conduct of the war and the toll on Palestinian civilians but has not called for an immediate cease-fire.

Britain’s Conservative government said Monday that it was imposing sanctions on four Israeli settlers accused of committing human rights abuses against Palestinians in the West Bank.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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