Labour’s by-election candidate in Rochdale was “completely wrong” to say Israel deliberately allowed the 7 October massacre to give it the “green light” to invade Gaza, the party’s UK campaign coordinator has said.
Speaking to Sky News’ Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips, senior shadow frontbencher Pat McFadden pointed out Azhar Ali had issued a full apology and retraction and hoped he “learns a good lesson from it”.
The row erupted after the Lancashire county councillor’s comments were published by The Mail On Sunday newspaper.
His remarks have been branded “warped” and “disgraceful” by the Jewish community, which fears they could further fuel hostility.
It will also be seized on by political opponents as evidence that Sir Keir has failed to change Labour since Jeremy Corbyn, when the party was embroiled in an antisemitism controversy.
Mr McFadden said of Mr Ali: “His comments were completely wrong. He should never have said something like that.
“He’s issued a complete apology and retraction and I hope he learns a good lesson from it because he should never have said something like that in the first place.”
Mr Ali made his comments at a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party in the wake of the October atrocity, where he claimed the Israeli government had removed its border security to enable the Hamas attack.
He said: “The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel ten days earlier… Americans warned them a day before [that] there’s something happening… They deliberately took the security off, they allowed… that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want.”
After someone suggested Sir Keir was “held in high regard”, Mr Ali replied: “Can I disagree with you… A lot of the MPs I’ve spoken to, non-Muslim MPs, feel that on this issue, he’s lost the confidence of the parliamentary party.”
After his remarks were made public, Mr Ali said in a statement: “I apologise unreservedly to the Jewish community for my comments which were deeply offensive, ignorant, and false.
“Hamas’s horrific terror attack was the responsibility of Hamas alone, and they are still holding hostages who must be released.
“7 October was the greatest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust, and Jews in the UK and across the world are living in fear of rising antisemitism.
“I will urgently apologise to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments.
“The Labour Party has changed unrecognisably under Keir Starmer’s leadership, he has my full support in delivering the change Britain needs.”
Comments aren’t about by-election – but Starmer’s decision-making
While the row over Azhar Ali may be connected to the upcoming Rochdale by-election, it’s really a story about Sir Keir Stamer and his ability to make difficult political decisions.
No one is disputing Mr Ali did say that Israel allowed the 7 October attacks to take place. No one – including Mr Ali himself – is disputing those remarks were ignorant, false and offensive. And yet, he remains Labour’s candidate.
Part of the explanation for that is technical. It’s now too late for Labour to swap in someone else with the official deadline having elapsed days ago. So he will be on the ballot paper.
The question for Sir Keir is whether the party disavows their candidate, stops campaigning for him in Rochdale, and makes it clear he would not sit as a Labour MP if he did win the vote.
The Jewish Representative Council of Greater Manchester & Region said it had met Mr Ali and been reassured by his “long track record of interfaith work and combatting extremism”, but had been “shocked and appalled” about his remarks on the Hamas attack, which it said demonstrated “warped thinking”.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews said in a statement: “These comments are disgraceful and unforgivable.
“It is clear to us that Mr Ali is not apologising out of a genuine sense of remorse.”
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, wrote on social media: “Outrageous, highly offensive, mad and unacceptable.”
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.”
Gawain Towler, a spokesman for Reform UK, 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 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.”
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.
He is defending a Labour majority of more than 9,000.
The Liberal Democrats have been asked for comment.
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