Rochdale by-election: Labour's candidate criticised for Israel comments

Date published: 12 February 2024

A Jewish community leader in Preston says comments made by a senior Lancashire county councillor - Labour's candidate for the Rochdale parliamentary by-election - alleging Israel deliberately allowed 7 October terrorist attack have given fuel to “demons” on social media spreading other unsubstantiated claims about the state.

Jeremy Dable, the Jewish representative on the Preston Faith Covenant, was speaking after reports that Azhar Ali – Labour’s opposition group leader on Lancashire County Council – had been recorded claiming Israel had removed border security in advance of the Hamas atrocity in order to justify its subsequent attack on Gaza.

Around 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 200 taken hostage during the onslaught.

The Mail on Sunday said County Councillor Ali had told a meeting of the Lancashire party shortly after the attacks: “The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel ten days earlier… Americans warned them a day before [that] there’s something happening. They deliberately took the security off, they allowed… that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want.”

He has now apologised “unreservedly” for the remarks, which he also acknowledges were “false”.

However, Mr Dable told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that the comments had unleashed a wave of similar sentiment online.

“All the demons are out there making all the completely unsupported allegations under the sun – and it’s just a sign of the age that they can do that. People challenge them, but… we’re back to the 18th century with the standard of rhetoric – it’s completely without any restraint.

“It falls on the person who says something to prove it, not the person who denies it. So if [Azhar Ali] says the Israelis [allowed people to be] killed people on 7 October, then it’s his test to prove it – and he can’t.

“It’s disgusting that he should make such an appalling blood libel,” added Mr Dable.

The LDRS approached Councillor Ali for comment and the Labour Party in the North West referred to the statement he issued over the weekend, in which he said: “I apologise unreservedly to the Jewish community for my comments which were deeply offensive, ignorant, and false.

“Hamas’ horrific terror attack was the responsibility of Hamas alone – and they are still holding hostages who must be released. October 7 was the greatest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust – and Jews in the UK and across the world are living in fear of rising antisemitism.

“I will urgently apologise to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments.

“The Labour Party has changed unrecognisably under Keir Starmer’s leadership, he has my full support in delivering the change Britain needs.”

Councillor Ali – who was awarded an MBE in 2020 for services to the community in the North West – was one of almost 40 of the party’s elected representatives from across Lancashire to sign a letter to Sir Keir Starmer calling for a shift in the party leader’s stance over the war in Gaza in the weeks after the Hamas attack.

Speaking to the LDRS in late October, he said that he wanted to see Labour play a leading role in pushing for a ceasefire.

“Every life counts, every life is equal – irrespective of [a person’s] faith or whether they have no faith.

“The pictures of the people who died in Israel and the people who are dying in Gaza are heartbreaking. We need to do everything in our power to stop it and work towards a peaceful two-state solution.

“Also, the Palestinians aren’t Hamas and Hamas is not the Palestinian people. Their homes, schools and hospitals are being destroyed by Israeli military might.

“These images are going to end up radicalising people across the world – and what we need to be doing is working towards a peaceful resolution to reduce the chance of escalation [of the conflict] into neighbouring countries,” he said at the time.

To date, more than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed during Israel’s military operation in Gaza, as part of its stated aim to eradicate Hamas.

Mr. Dable said that County Councillor Ali’s secretly-recorded comments were “beyond the pale” – and will have caused widespread offence within the Jewish community.

“The vast majority of people who’ve got any communal sense of their Jewish identity are Zionists. We may have different ideas about the future of Israel and politics within it – but it’s a strange Jew that doesn’t believe in the right of Israel to survive as a nation.

“We all believe in the right of Israel to exist as an independent democratic state. Every single one… will be disgusted by what this man said.”

County Councillor Ali has sat on Lancashire County Council since 2013 and has been the opposition Labour group leader for almost seven years. He represents the Nelson East division and was also a cabinet member the last time Labour was in control at Preston's County Hall between 2013 and 2017.

He was also leader of Pendle Council in the early 2000s and stood for the Pendle constituency in the 2019 general election, coming second to the incumbent Conservative, Andrew Stephenson.


Azhar Ali has been chosen as Labour's candidate for Rochdale in the by-election
Azhar Ali pictured shortly after his selection as Labour's candidate for Rochdale in the by-election


Pat McFadden, Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator, said on Sunday that County Councillor Ali’s comments were “completely wrong” and did not represent the party’s view.

“I hope he learns a good lesson from it, because he should never have said something like that in the first place,” Mr McFadden added.

However, he confirmed the Lancashire politician would remain the party’s candidate for the Rochdale by-election on 29 February, when he will be defending a Labour majority of more than 9,000 secured by the late MP Sir Tony Lloyd, who died last month.

The deadline to remove Councillor Ali from the ballot paper has passed, should the party have wanted to do so.

Meanwhile, the Tories have called for the aspiring MP’s campaign to be suspended and his Labour Party membership removed.

Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, said: “Sir Keir Starmer cannot continue to support this candidacy.”

Paul Faulkner, Local Democracy Reporting Service

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