Sir Keir Starmer is facing questions about why his party did not take action earlier against Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali, as ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports
Sir Keir Starmer said he took "tough and decisive" action to withdraw Labour's support for its Rochdale by-election candidate over his "appalling" remarks made about Israel - but it came as new revelations threatened to reignite the row.
Labour is facing further questions after one of its election candidates, Graham Jones, allegedly referred to "f***ing Israel" at a meeting, according to a leaked recording obtained by Guido Fawkes.
He also allegedly said that Britons who volunteer to fight for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) "should be locked up". Mr Jones also falsely claimed that it is illegal for British citizens to do so.
ITV News understands Mr Jones - a former Labour MP for Hyndburn who lost his seat in 2019 and is seeking to stand again - has been administratively suspended from the Labour Party, pending an investigation.
Labour would have to follow a formal process if the party wanted to strip him of his candidacy, but he is believed to have been called for an interview on Tuesday evening.
The latest row to emerge from the meeting came only hours after the Labour leader insisted the party had “changed” under his leadership, following the move to strip Mr Ali, who is believed to be suspended pending an investigation, of his party’s backing.
The Labour leadership has been facing questions as to why it took so long to withdraw support for Mr Ali, after he was recorded suggesting in the meeting that Israel had allowed Hamas to attack on October 7 as a pretext to invade Gaza.
Mr Ali, who is also a Lancashire County Councillor, apologised to the Jewish community and retracted his original remarks, which he described as “deeply offensive, ignorant and false”.
For almost two days, Labour stood by his candidacy in the Greater Manchester town but the party later withdrew support after "new information about further comments” about Israel came to light.
According to a story published by the Daily Mail on Monday night, Mr Ali also said “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” were “giving crap” about MP Andy McDonald, who was suspended by Labour after he used the phrase “between the river and the sea” in a speech during a rally.
The paper also said the now-former Labour candidate claimed that Israel planned to “get rid of [Palestinians] from Gaza” and “grab” some of the land.
The party leadership was pressed on why Mr Ali had not been immediately suspended after the first comments emerged.
Sir Keir has repeatedly insisted he has rooted out antisemitism in the party, and said he took "tough and decisive" action to withdraw support for his candidate in the Labour stronghold seat.
Starmer told broadcasters on Tuesday it is a "huge thing" and "virtually unprecedented" to withdraw support for a candidate during the course of a by-election, as he condemned the remarks as "appalling".
Tthe Labour leader said: “Certain information came to light over the weekend in relation to the candidate. There was a fulsome apology.
“Further information came to light yesterday calling for decisive action, so I took decisive action."
“It’s a tough decision, a necessary decision, but when I say the Labour Party has changed under my leadership I mean it," he added.
Sir Keir has sought to move his party on from the Corbyn era, which was overshadowed by controversies over antisemitism, and insisted "it is absolutely clear" his party has changed.
When pressed, Starmer said any allegations against other Labour councillors present at the event at which Mr Ali made his widely condemned remarks would be “fully investigated by the party”.
The party recently suspended the MP Kate Osamor after she appeared to say the Gaza war should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day.
The decision to withdraw backing for the candidate will come as a blow to the party, which had hoped to retain the Labour stronghold seat following the death last month of sitting MP Sir Tony Lloyd.
Lord John Mann, a former Labour MP who is now an independent adviser to UK Government on antisemitism, told ITV News that Sir Keir will be "absolutely seething” over the situation, but he believes the Labour leader has done the right thing.
He said: "It’s a massive decision. This has never happened with a Parliamentary seat where the incumbent party expected to win – probably would’ve won – has thrown that seat. It’s a big bold decision by Starmer and I would commend him for it.
"I think the Jewish community actually will take a lot of reassurance that this decision has been made."
Lord Mann said there’s been an "extreme" growth in antisemitism not only in politics but across the nation.
"It’s not just in politics, it’s not just in the Labour Party - it’s across the political scene," he said. "Anyone that thinks this is a Labour problem, is being dangerously naïve, this is a national problem."
But Defence Secretary Grant Shapps accused Sir Keir of acting out of "weakness" and "political expediency" rather than out of "principle".
He told broadcasters: "I think Starmer has been taking the public for fools. He's supported and promoted a candidate who has expressed the most atrocious racism against Jewish people."
Rishi Sunak, speaking to GB News viewers on Monday at an event in County Durham, said it was a “con” to suggest Labour has been reformed.
He said: “Keir Starmer has been running around for the last year trying to tell everybody ‘Okay, Labour Party’s changed’. Well, look what just happened in Rochdale.”
He accused Starmer of having “stood by and sent cabinet ministers to support him, until literally five minutes before I walked on tonight, under enormous media pressure, has decided to change his mind on principle”.
“No principles at all,” he added.
Labour’s decision will add considerable uncertainty to the outcome of the by-election when voters go to the polls at the end of the month.
Also running in Rochdale are former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, now the Reform Party candidate, and George Galloway, of the Workers Party of Britain, who is campaigning against Labour’s stance on Gaza.
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.
If elected, Mr Ali will sit as an independent MP and will not receive the party whip. The decision means that Labour will also need to find a new candidate to contest the seat at the upcoming general election.
A spokesperson for 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...
“Rather than appearing as a principled decision, Labour’s withdrawal of support for its candidate at this late stage just looks as expedient as the failed attempt to defend him. It is the worst of all worlds for Labour.”
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