James Heale James Heale

Keir Starmer’s by-election bind

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

It’s the nightmare scenario Labour dreads. A triumphant George Galloway, carried aloft on his supporters’ shoulders, hailing a shock by-election victory in a left-wing stronghold. Twelve years after his stunning upset in Bradford West, the odds of a repeat triumph in Rochdale have only increased after a storm of criticism this weekend over Labour’s chosen candidate.

Following the death of the incumbent MP Tony Lloyd in mid-January, Labour rushed to select his replacement. The party feared that a long campaign would bolster the chances of a more-avowedly pro-Palestine candidate, in a seat where 30 per cent of voters are Muslim. They therefore chose to move the writ for a by-election on 29 February and quickly selected Azhar Ali as their candidate – just ten days after Lloyd’s death.

However, it has now emerged that, in the aftermath of the 7/10 terror attacks, Ali claimed that Israel deliberately let Hamas massacre its citizens. At a meeting of the Lancashire Labour party, he accused the Israelis of paving the way for the slaughter of their own people, in order to get the ‘green light’ to attack Gaza. Ali has now apologised and admitted his comments were ‘inexcusable.’

The furore puts Keir Starmer in an uncomfortable bind. It is now too late for Labour to replace Azhar Ali with another candidate. But Starmer could make clear he no longer enjoys official support, that the whip will be withdrawn if Ali is elected and that a different Labour candidate will be chosen for the general election. That, however, would make a Galloway victory all the more likely. ‘He’d bring his bag of unpleasant tricks back with him,’ remarks one MP. His return could encourage independent candidates keen to exploit Labour’s divisions over Gaza across the country.

Labour’s difficulties are compounded by the apparent inconsistency in how its leadership treats miscreants who step out of line over Gaza.

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