(Bloomberg) -- UK opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer faces pressure from political opponents to drop his candidate for this month’s parliamentary election in northern England after they were recorded sharing an antisemitic conspiracy theory about the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel.
Azhar Ali, Labour’s candidate for the by-election in Rochdale on Feb. 29, said shortly after the attack that Israel had “allowed” it to “get the green light to do whatever they bloody want,” the Mail on Sunday newspaper reported on its front page, citing a recording it had obtained.
Ali apologized, saying his remarks were “deeply offensive, ignorant and false.” Pat McFadden, Labour’s national campaign coordinator, said the comments were “completely wrong” and don’t represent the party’s views.
The political fallout poses a major challenge to Labour and Starmer because, despite leading by about 20 points in national opinion polls, it cuts across a range of hot-button issues that threaten to undercut support for the party. Starmer has spent four years trying to move Labour on from the accusations of antisemitism that dogged the party under his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.
But Hamas’s attack and Israel’s response in Gaza have exacerbated tensions within Labour, which traditionally has strong support among British Muslims. Starmer for weeks resisted demands to call for a cease-fire, causing anger especially on the left wing of his party, as he tried to show how much Labour has changed and as he positioned it as a government-in-waiting.
All of which forms the backdrop to the row over Ali. Starmer is facing calls to drop Labour’s campaign support — it’s too late to change candidate due to election rules — in Rochdale, where the party is defending a majority of 9,668. The vote was triggered by the death of Labour veteran MP Tony Lloyd.
To compound the headache for Starmer, George Galloway, a former Labour MP who now leads the Workers Party, is running a pro-Palestinian campaign in Rochdale to try to capitalize on local discontent about Starmer’s stance.
The timing is also awkward, following Starmer’s U-turn on Labour’s flagship green spending plan just last week. The risk is that if Labour continues to support Ali, it will raise further questions about what Starmer stands for — a key attack line of Rishi Sunak’s poll-trailing Conservative Party.
Amid the furor, Labour’s opponents are trying to capitalize. Conservative Party Chairman Richard Holden said Starmer should suspend Labour’s campaign in Rochdale and immediately remove Ali’s party membership.
Within Labour, though, the argument is far from clearcut. Mike Katz, the national chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, said his group would not campaign in Rochdale over Ali’s “totally reprehensible” comments. But he said Labour stepping aside to allow a Galloway victory would “harm the Jewish community far more than electing Ali.”
Meanwhile Louise Ellman, a prominent Labour politician who quit the party under Corbyn before rejoining, criticized Ali’s remarks but said they were “out of character.” Ali, she said, “should now have the opportunity to work with the Jewish community to restore the loss of trust his actions have caused.”
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