February 12, 2024 - 7:00am

The Rochdale by-election should have been a cakewalk for Labour, but controversial comments made by its candidate have thrown the party into a tailspin. In recordings released a few days before the vote. Azhar Ali discussed the 7 October attacks and said that Israel “allowed […] that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want”. He has been roundly condemned and issued a rapid apology — but the Labour campaign remains a mess. 

It is too late to stand down the candidate. Ballot papers are printed and postal votes have already been sent out. Labour is now faced with repudiating its own candidate, as the Tories have called for, or battling on through the headlines for another few days before then having another troublesome MP in Parliament. It’s turned an easy, 10,000-majority by-election into an embarrassment. 

This will refresh Labour’s biggest fears about the coming general election. It is a reminder of how quickly things can go wrong, whether on a local or national scale. Candidates can slip up under the full glare of an election, and issues previously missed in vetting can pop up. Too many of these, and it starts to look like an institutional problem which might drag the whole party down. These events will likely make Labour even more risk-averse as we tick down to the election. 

The incident also highlights one of Keir Starmer’s weaknesses. He has set out his stall by tackling the cloud of antisemitism that hung around the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. His pitch to voters has been that he fixed the party and can now focus on the country. A candidate in a prominent election being caught making comments such as Ali’s throws that into doubt. Problems still lurk within Starmer’s Labour, despite the work he has done. 

At the same time, his response to the Rochdale incident will likely mean a further fight with the Labour Left. Many are already incensed by the way he has turned on the previous leadership — withdrawing the whip from key figures and supposedly stitching up selections to edge out Corbynite factions. They have also criticised him for not calling on Israel to observe a ceasefire, with more than 50 Labour MPs breaking the whip to support one in Parliament. Disciplining Ali now could cause another conflagration. Starmer has few easy choices available. 

Beyond the party politics, however, the Rochdale controversy raises bigger questions. Ali is an experienced politician, has served on Lancashire County Council and has been awarded an OBE for his service. Saying this sort of thing is no mere gaffe, but instead a sign of conspiratorial thinking. It is shocking that he would hold these views.

The response to 7 October has revealed that these views are more widespread than most people would have believed. Snapshots from Rochdale have shown that Palestine has become a major issue in the electoral battle for a northern English town. Labour leaders have been harangued, while George Galloway has built a base of support in the contest too. Seen in this light, Ali’s comments are more than a headache for Labour: they are a symptom of a growing prevalence of hardline anti-Israeli sentiments. 

The internal Labour issues have not come from nowhere. A growing bloc of voters and activists have animus against Israel as part of their core political beliefs, and local parties are often happy to turn a blind eye to this when it brings electoral advantages. This could well be a lingering issue not just for Labour, and not just in Rochdale, but for our politics as a whole.

John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.