Sir Keir Starmer has claimed he took “decisive action” in withdrawing support from Labour’s candidate for the Rochdale by-election.
Azhar Ali was suspended by the party on Monday after it emerged he had allegedly made antisemitic remarks at a party meeting.
Shadow ministers initially stood by the councillor after his comments were published by the Mail on Sunday – saying Israel had deliberately allowed the Hamas atrocity to take place in order to give it the “green light” to invade Gaza – condemning the words but saying he had offered a full apology.
But when further remarks from Mr Ali came to light on Tuesday night – namely him blaming “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for fuelling criticism of a pro-Palestinian Labour MP, as well as claiming Israel planned to “get rid of [Palestinians] from Gaza” and “grab” some of the land – the party withdrew its support.
Speaking to reporters for the first time since the decision, Sir Keir said: “I took decisive action. It is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during the course of a by-election.
“It is a tough decision, a necessary decision, but when I say the Labour Party has changed under my leadership, I mean it.”
He described the comments made by Mr Ali as “appalling”, but doubled down on his actions, saying: “It is virtually unprecedented to withdraw support for a candidate in the way that I withdrew support for this candidate yesterday.
“That’s what a changed Labour Party is all about.”
Sir Keir added: “I set out four years ago to tear antisemitism out of the Labour Party. It is the first thing I said I’d do as Labour leader, to change our party.
“I have taken a series of decisions along those lines, ruthlessly changing our party, and it has made no difference to me where someone stands in the Labour Party.
“The change I brought about is a Labour Party that is now back in the service of working people.”
Mr Ali led the Labour group on Lancashire County Council before being selected as a candidate for the Rochdale by-election, set for 29 February.
He was hoping to replace Labour stalwart Sir Tony Lloyd, who died in January, but he is now understood to have been suspended from the party pending an investigation.
Although Labour has now withdrawn its support for Mr Ali, it is too late for his name to be removed from the ballot paper as the party’s candidate.
If he won the contest, Labour has said he would sit as an independent MP.
The government attacked Sir Keir for the delay in removing support from the candidate, with housing minister Lee Rowley saying the incident “shows the Labour Party is in a real mess”.
He told Sky News’ Breakfast With Kay Burley: “It is just extraordinary to see some of the things that are coming out now, some of the conspiracy theories.
“It is showing that the Labour Party really hasn’t got a grip on this, that it is a party which has not changed [and] a party which will say anything to win government.”
But Lord Mann, a former Labour MP who advises the government on tackling antisemitism, praised the leadership for a “bold and brave decision”, to withdraw support and said the Jewish community would “take great comfort in the fact that Keir Starmer has been prepared to do it”.
A spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats said: “Comments in the public domain were already unacceptable.
“Hamas’s terrorist atrocities on 7th October were an act of unspeakable evil. The Liberal Democrats are calling for an immediate bilateral ceasefire.”
See below the full list of candidates and the political parties they represent:
Azhar Ali, (listed as Labour Party, but now removed as its candidate)
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