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Rochdale by-election gets nasty as posters urge pro-Gaza voters to ‘teach Keir Starmer a lesson’ by backing candidate Labour disowned over ‘anti-Semitic’ remarks – with experts saying contest will be ‘critical test’ of the leader


Rochdale voters are being urged to ‘teach Keir Starmer a lesson’ by backing the by-election candidate the Labour leader junked in an anti-Semitism row. 

Pro-Palestinian supporters of Azhar Ali, who was suspended by Labour this week, are said to be sharing anti-Starmer posters on WhatsApp in a bid to drum up votes.

It is the latest sign of how bitter divisions over the Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas have caused a deep rupture within Labour ranks.

One expert warned the Rochdale by-election, on February 29, will be a ‘critical test’ for Labour in dealing with issues over the Gaza crisis ahead of the general election.

Sir Keir withdrew Labour’s backing for Mr Ali as their official by-election candidate following an anti-Semitism storm over the councillor’s comments at a local meeting.

He was recorded suggesting Israel ‘deliberately’ allowed the Hamas terror attacks on October 7 to happen as a pretext to invade Gaza.

Mr Ali also blamed ‘people in the media from certain Jewish quarters’ for the suspension of a pro-Palestinian MP.

Pro-Palestinian supporters of Azhar Ali, who was suspended by Labour this week, are said to be sharing anti-Starmer posters on WhatsApp in a bid to drum up votes

Pro-Palestinian supporters of Azhar Ali, who was suspended by Labour this week, are said to be sharing anti-Starmer posters on WhatsApp in a bid to drum up votes

One poster depicts Sir Keir Starmer as a clown and dubs the Labour leader as 'anti Palestine Starmer', in comparison to Mr Ali as 'a stong voice for Palestine'

One poster depicts Sir Keir Starmer as a clown and dubs the Labour leader as ‘anti Palestine Starmer’, in comparison to Mr Ali as ‘a stong voice for Palestine’

Sir Keir withdrew Labour's backing for Mr Ali as their official by-election candidate following an anti-Semitism storm over the councillor's comments at a local meeting

Sir Keir withdrew Labour’s backing for Mr Ali as their official by-election candidate following an anti-Semitism storm over the councillor’s comments at a local meeting

Although Mr Ali is no longer Labour’s official by-election candidate, his suspension came after the deadline to remove him from the ballot paper had already passed.

This has led to the highly unusual situation where Labour cannot replace him as the party’s Rochdale candidate on paper.

But, if Mr Ali wins, he would sit in the House of Commons as an independent MP and without the Labour whip.

According to LBC radio, Mr Ali remains determined to win in Rochdale with a source saying he is continuing his campaign ‘from his car as a quasi-independent, with three or four people’.

Posters in support of Mr Ali, said to be circulating on WhatsApp, have been shared on social media – including by journalist Michael Crick and a pro-Palestinian group known as the Newham Independents.

Alongside an image of Mr Ali, one reads: ‘Sacked by Starmer for speaking on Palestine. It’s time to teach Starmer a lesson in Rochdale. Vote Azhar Ali.’

Another depicts Sir Keir as a clown and dubs the Labour leader as ‘anti Palestine Starmer’, in comparison to Mr Ali as ‘a stong voice for Palestine’.

Alongside the image, the Newham Independents posted on Twitter: ‘The WhatsApp groups of Rochdale are buzzing with political campaigning.

‘This image was sent to us, it would seem that Team Ali are not quite ready to be counted out of the running just yet?’

Labour’s withdrawal of its support for Mr Ali means Sir Keir has effectively conceded defeat in the Greater Manchester seat, which was left vacant following the death of veteran Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd.

Election expert Professor Michael Thrasher suggested Labour’s handling of a loss in the Rochdale by-election would be a ‘critical test’ for Sir Keir. 

‘There will be a critical test for Labour in Rochdale,’ he told Sky News.

‘We know the background to that event. And – if they should lose that seat, which seems likely as far as I can see – how Labour handles that and how its opponents exploit that… there may well yet be another twist in the narrative of this general election year.’

Labour and Sir Tony won Rochdale at the 2019 general election with a majority of more than 9,000 votes.

Ex-Labour MP George Galloway is standing at the by-election for his Workers Party of Britain and campaigning on a pro-Palestine ticket.

Another former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who quit the party in 2017 amid a ‘sexting’ scandal, is standing as Reform UK’s candidate in Rochdale.

Speaking this morning, Sir Keir declined to say whether he acted quickly enough over Mr Ali’s comments

But insisted he was prepared to make ‘ruthless’ decisions as he seeks to show Labour is a changed party from when it was led by Jeremy Corbyn.

‘I did something that no leader of the Labour party has ever done before, which is to remove a candidate in a by-election where they cannot be replaced, because I was so determined to take decisive action in relation to anti-Semitism,’ he told BBC Breakfast.

Asked whether Mr Ali’s removal as Labour candidate happened quickly enough, Sir Keir said: ‘It was done within days.’

 ‘We are giving up a Labour seat. That’s the right thing to do,’ he added.

‘But what it shows is, when there’s tough decisions to be made, I take those decisions. That’s what I’ve been doing for four years.

‘Taking tough and ruthless decisions to change this party. I’ve taken two tough and ruthless decisions in the last 10 days.

‘Has it been bumpy? Yes, of course it’s been bumpy, but: ‘Were they the right decisions?’ is the question I asked myself. They were the right decisions.’

Sir Keir later insisted he was ‘satisfied’ with Labour’s ‘robust due process’ when pressed on whether he could be confident there are no other candidates who share Mr Ali’s views.

The Labour leader told reporters: ‘I’ve put in place in the Labour Party a robust due process exercised for every single candidate.

‘In this particular case there was a private conversation that couldn;t be picked up by due process.

‘So I’m satisfied with our processes, but we must continue to fight anti-Semitism wherever we are in organisations, in political parties.’

Mr Ali apologised for his remarks at a meeting of local party members and councillors.

He said: ‘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.’



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