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Labour antisemitism row: What happens after candidate loses support and what does it mean for Starmer?

The Labour Party is facing a crisis in Rochdale as Sir Keir Starmer pulled his support from his own candidate over a series of remarks made about Israel and Hamas’s 7 October attack.

The story hit the headlines on Sunday morning when Labour’s by-election candidate Azhar Ali was revealed to have made comments suggesting Israel had allowed the Hamas attack to take place in order to provide an excuse to invade Gaza.

Starmer initially stood by Mr Ali - but on Monday night, the party said support for the candidate had been withdrawn after “new information about further comments” he had made.

Mr Ali has apologised to the Jewish community for the remarks, admitting they were “deeply offensive” and wrong. He has been suspended from the Labour party pending an investigation.

Labour has withdrawn its support for its Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali (PA Wire)
Labour has withdrawn its support for its Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali (PA Wire)

The Rochdale by-election was called after the death of Rochdale Labour MP Sir Tony Lloyd, who had held the seat since 2017, and won at the last general election in 2019 with a majority of 9,700.

It will take place after two by-elections in Wellingborough and Kingswood this week.

Can Labour replace Mr Ali as the party’s candidate?

No. The deadline to replace a candidate is 19 working days before a poll, under Election Commission rules. With the by-election taking place on 29 February, that deadline passed on 2 February.

Even if Mr Ali agreed to withdraw or stand as an independent, he cannot because the deadline has passed. His name will appear next to the “Labour Party” on the ballot paper.

On the same note, it is also too late for the party to introduce another official candidate.

What happens if Mr Ali wins?

So much has been written about Mr Ali since the weekend that his election promises have been largely buried under reams of reporting on the scandal. A report in The Oldham Times, has him quoted as wanting to provide “a strong voice for Rochdale”, with a focus on the cost-of-living crisis. He told the Labour List websute that he wants to see an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza.

Labour has won the Rochdale seat in the past four elections, since 2010 (PA Wire)
Labour has won the Rochdale seat in the past four elections, since 2010 (PA Wire)

If the electorate in Rochdale do vote him in, he will not hold the party whip and will sit in Westminster as an independent MP.

What can Labour do?

Nothing, it is too late for the party to do anything. Officials will aim to ride out the storm ahead of the poll before assessing the implications of the result. The party will then be choosing a new candidate for the general election later this year.

George Galloway is the bookmakers’ favourite to win the by-election for his Workers Party of Britain (screengrab)
George Galloway is the bookmakers’ favourite to win the by-election for his Workers Party of Britain (screengrab)

Which way could it go and what will it mean for Sir Keir Starmer?

There are two other candidates on the ballot paper Labour voters could turn to.

One is Simon Danczuk, who was elected as Labour MP for Rochdale in 2010 before suspension from the party in 2015 over allegations of “inappropriate behaviour”. He is representing Reform UK.

The other is former Labour MP George Galloway. Mr Galloway, who is standing for his Workers Party of Britain, is no stranger to by-election success having won for his Respect Party in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, and then in Bradford West in 2012.

Mr Galloway, who is the bookmakers’ favourite to win the by-election, said he was running to “teach Labour a lesson”.

At the last election in 2019, Sir Tony received 24,475 votes for Labour, beating Atifa Shah for the Conservative Party, who received 14,807. Behind them was Chris Green, for The Brexit Party, with 3,867 votes, Andy Kelly, for the Lib Dems, with 3,312 votes and Sarah Croke, for the Green Party, with 986 votes.

Whatever way it goes, it will be a blow for Labour which will have hoped to win all three by-elections this month, including Wellingborough and Kingswood, to show off Sir Keir’s leadership credentials ahead of a general election this year.

Sir Keir also faces criticism for initially standing by Mr Ali, triggering a further antisemitism row in the party and damaging hopes such issues in the party had been dealt with.