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Labour Operation Faces Fury After "Absolute Mess" Of Rochdale By-Election

Labour leader Keir Starmer (Alamy)

4 min read

Labour's handling of the Rochdale by-election, which culminated in Keir Starmer's party cutting ties with the candidate chosen by local members, has triggered fresh criticism of the opposition's political operation.

On Monday night, a party spokesperson confirmed that Labour had withdrawn its support for Azhar Ali over comments he made about Israel before being chosen as the candidate for the by-election due to be held in Rochdale on 29 February. Electoral law means it is too late for Labour to replace Ali on the ballot, putting the party in the awkward and bizarre position of having no candidate to succeed the seat's former Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd, who died in January.

The short period between the Mail on Sunday reporting on Saturday night that Ali said Israel had "allowed" the 7 October Hamas attack, and Labour last night formally cutting ties with the candidate, was a rocky and uncomfortable one.

On Tuesday Starmer insisted that he had taken "decisive action" and a "tough decision" to withdraw support from Ali.

“When information came to light over the weekend in relation to the candidate, there was a fulsome apology," the Labour leader said during a campaign visit to Wellingborough. 

"Further information came to light yesterday calling for decisive action so I took decisive action. It is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during the course of a by-election. It is a tough decision, a necessary decision. But when I say the Labour Party is charged under my leadership, I mean it.”

But the Labour leadership has faced widespread criticism — including from figures within the party — for not jettisoning Ali immediately, and fresh questions about the quality of the decision making following last week's U-turn over the £28bn green investment policy.

"It’s an absolute mess and that’s holding back my language and fury," one shadow minister told PoliticsHome. "It just shows the complete lack of political acumen in LOTO [the Leader of the Opposition's office]."

Labour's decision last night to abandon Ali came as The Daily Mail reported more highly-controversial comments made by Ali about Israel and "Jewish quarters" of the press. 

However, PoliticsHome understands that "very unhappy" Labour figures and MPs were already pushing for the party to take firmer action after the first story was published because they felt the remarks reported at the weekend warranted the strongest possible response.

There is a belief among some that had senior figures in the Labour operation such as Director of Communications Matthew Doyle not been away when the party was first approached about Ali's remarks at the weekend, the immediate response may have been different. It has been suggested that a "B team" was tasked with handling the crisis at the weekend. Parliament is currently in recess, which is a popular time for people working in Westminster to go on holiday. A Labour spokesperson told PoliticsHome they did not comment on personnel matters.

The presence of George Galloway as the Workers' Party of Britain candidate in Rochdale is also likely to have factored into Labour's decision-making process in recent days, according to multiple party sources.

As has been the case in a number of parliamentary by-elections, Galloway is courting the seat's significant Muslim population through a campaign focused primarily on the conflict in Gaza and total support for Palestine. In leaflets distributed in the Greater Manchester town, the contentious left-wing figure has described a vote for Starmer's Labour as a vote for Israel. There is understood to be some resistance in the Labour movement to the prospect of Galloway returning to Westminster as Rochdale's MP, which is believed to have contributed to the delay in withdrawal of support for Ali. 

But the fact that Ali made it onto the ballot in the first place has raised questions about due diligence heading into the next general election, which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak must call this year.

While it is ultimately up to local party members to decide who the Labour candidate should be, there is nonetheless anger within the party ranks that higher-ups didn't prevent Ali from being able to emerge as Lloyd's chosen successor after such comments had been made publicly. 

A Labour source who has campaigned in the northwest ahead of the by-election said the last few days had left people feeling "demoralised".

They told PoliticsHome: "The word 'shit show' has been used more than once."

With additional reporting by Nadine-Batchelor Hunt and Tom Scotson.

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