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Starmer engulfed in second Labour antisemitism row after Rochdale by-election furore

Sir Keir Starmer is at the centre of a second antisemitism storm after Labour was forced to suspend a would-be MP just 24 hours after it ditched its candidate in the Rochdale by-election.

The party acted after Graham Jones, the prospective Labour MP for Hyndburn, appeared to say that Britons who volunteer to fight for the Israel Defense Forces “should be locked up”.

His taped comments, in which he also referred to “f***ing Israel”, were reportedly made in a rant to Labour’s former candidate in Rochdale, Azhar Ali, at a now infamous meeting at which Mr Ali claimed that Israel had “allowed” last October’s Hamas terror attacks to take place so that it could use them as a pretext to attack Gaza.

The latest row erupted just hours after Sir Keir insisted he had taken decisive action following accusations that the two-day delay in withdrawing support for Mr Ali was “shambolic”.

Labour initially backed Mr Ali, saying he had fallen for an online conspiracy theory. But the party dramatically dropped him on Monday night after it emerged that he had also blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for fuelling criticism of a pro-Palestinian MP.

The Conservatives said the furore showed that claims Labour had changed under Sir Keir were “hollow”.

Just hours later, Mr Jones’s comments were reported by the Guido Fawkes website. A former MP, in 2018 he was questioned by police after branding the Israeli ambassador a “tosser” at his party’s annual conference.

Martin Forde KC, the author of a report about the culture in the Labour Party, said he considered Mr Jones’s comments antisemitic. He told LBC: “I can’t reach any other objective conclusion I’m afraid.” In the audio, Mr Jones also wrongly says it is against the law for Britons to fight for another country unless Britain has a military alliance with it.

The Jewish Labour Movement, one of the oldest societies affiliated with the party, called for Mr Jones to be dropped.

The Independent understands that he has been administratively suspended pending an investigation. While there is a process to formally remove a candidate, Mr Jones has been called in for an interview with the party on Tuesday night.

A spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism called on Labour to reveal whether other MPs, candidates or councillors had been present at the meeting at which Mr Jones is reported to have made his remarks, “and why they said nothing about the remarks that were made, and indeed if more such remarks were made”.

In his first public comment since the row erupted on Sunday, Sir Keir pledged to investigate allegations against any Labour councillors or others present when Mr Ali made his widely condemned remarks. He has met both Mr Ali and Mr Jones, who have also met shadow frontbenchers such as Lisa Nandy.

He also denied suggestions that he would have dumped the candidate for Rochdale sooner had Mr Ali been on the left of his party.

Suspended candidate Graham Jones (right), and Azhar Ali (left), who has been ditched as Labour’s candidate in the Rochdale by-election, with shadow cabinet minister Lisa Nandy in 2022 (Supplied)
Suspended candidate Graham Jones (right), and Azhar Ali (left), who has been ditched as Labour’s candidate in the Rochdale by-election, with shadow cabinet minister Lisa Nandy in 2022 (Supplied)

Earlier, Mr Forde described Labour’s reaction in the two days since Mr Ali’s comments first emerged as “pretty shambolic”.

He condemned the remarks as “clearly antisemitic” and “inflammatory”, and said that Labour should have withdrawn its support at the weekend: “That to me would be the sensible thing to do.”

“One does have to question how such individuals are selected in the first place”, he said, adding that left-leaning Labour MPs feel there has been a “disparity in treatment” when it comes to allegations of antisemitism.

Mr Forde’s 2022 inquiry, commissioned by Sir Keir, found that both the left and right wings of the party had used antisemitism as a factional weapon under former leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Appearing on the campaign trail in Wellingborough, Sir Keir defended the delay. He 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 is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during the course of a by-election. It’s a tough decision, a necessary decision, but when I say the Labour Party has changed under my leadership I mean it.” He also denied he had stuck by Mr Ali because of factionalism, saying it makes “no difference to me where somebody stands in the Labour Party”.

The government’s antisemitism tsar, John Mann – a former Labour MP – said it was “hardly a surprise” that Labour had been forced to withdraw its support.

Lord Mann called on political leaders from all parties to “get their collective acts together to sort this out” as he warned of a “tornado” of anti-Jewish racism working its way through the country.

Labour MP Steve McCabe described the affair as “embarrassing” for his party, although he defended the decision to back Mr Ali initially “to give him the benefit of the doubt that he said his apology in good faith”.

Keir Starmer insists that he means it when he says the Labour Party has changed under his leadership (Getty)
Keir Starmer insists that he means it when he says the Labour Party has changed under his leadership (Getty)

A group of Tory MPs, including former defence secretary Ben Wallace, have also written to Labour to ask if any other Labour MPs or councillors were at the meeting and whether they spoke up to oppose the comments.

Mr Ali initially apologised after he was recorded suggesting at a Labour Party meeting that Israel had used the 7 October assault by Hamas as an excuse to invade Gaza.

On Monday night a party spokesperson said Labour’s backing for Mr Ali as the candidate for Rochdale had been withdrawn “following new information” about the aspiring MP, who is understood to have been suspended pending an investigation.

Labour recently suspended an MP, Kate Osamor, after she appeared to suggest that the war in Gaza should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day. She later apologised for her comments.

Veteran MP Diane Abbott has also had the whip withdrawn after she suggested in a letter to The Observer last year that Jewish, Irish and Traveller people were not subject to racism “all their lives”.

She apologised and suggested that “errors arose” when the letter was being drafted.

Mr Forde highlighted both cases, saying that “things seemed to drag on in terms of disciplining certain elements of the party, and be dealt with swiftly in others”.

Sir Keir has boasted of turning his party around after controversies over alleged antisemitism dogged Mr Corbyn’s time as leader.

Polls suggest that voters could turn away from Labour over its perceived support for Israel (PA)
Polls suggest that voters could turn away from Labour over its perceived support for Israel (PA)

Labour’s U-turn has created uncertainty over who will win the Rochdale vote at the end of this month.

Also standing are former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, now the Reform Party candidate, and ex-Labour MP George Galloway, leader of the Workers Party of Britain, who is campaigning against Labour’s stance on Gaza.

Polls suggest Labour’s vote share could be hit by unhappiness over the party’s perceived support for Israel.

If elected, Mr Ali will sit as an independent MP and will not receive the party whip.

A spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism said Sir Keir had “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’”. They added: “People will have to judge for themselves whether the additional reported comments by Azhar Ali are really any worse than the comments that had already been reported.”