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Jewish campaigners fear George Galloway could win Rochdale by-election

Director of the British Board of Deputies 'extremely worried' about Rochdale by-election after Labour withdraws support for candidate over Israel comments

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves to the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, an advanced manufacturing research facility, to speak with apprentices and technicians about investment in new industries and Labour's Green Prosperity Plan. Picture date: Friday February 9, 2024. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)
Labour has been forced to withdraw its support for Azhar Ali, its candidate in the Rochdale by-election. (Getty)

The Labour Party is trying to fend off a storm of criticism after it was forced to withdraw support for its own candidate in the Rochdale by-election over controversial remarks he made about Israel.

Azhar Ali sparked widespread criticism after he suggested at a community meeting that Israel had "allowed" the 7 October Hamas attacks because it "gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want".

Ali apologised for his "deeply offensive” comments after they were reported by the Mail on Sunday but, despite initially being backed by party leader Keir Starmer, Labour withdrew its support for him as their candidate on Monday night amid mounting pressure.

It is now too late to replace him as the Labour candidate for the by-election on 29 February, which means the party will not have a candidate on the ballot sheet. Ali can still stand as an independent candidate.

The dramatic developments have opened up the race for the seat that was left vacant following the death of the sitting Labour MP, Tony Lloyd, in January this year

About 20% of the electorate and 30% of the population of Rochdale are Asian, and some polls have suggested Labour’s vote could be hit by Asian people unhappy with the party over the conflict in Palestine and the party's perceived support for Israel.

This has increased the prospect of controversial candidate George Galloway being elected. Galloway, who is a prominent supporter of Palestine, has been a vocal critic of Labour's failure to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and is standing as the candidate for the Workers Party of Britain.

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The latest developments have seen Labour's predicted victory in the by-election slip, according to bookmakers. Betfair put Galloway's odds at 9/4 to win and Labour's odds slipping from 2/5 to 1/11.

Labour is defending a significant majority of 10,000, so while the prospect of a Galloway victory remains slim, suggestions he could win the seat have sparked concerns from Jewish leaders.

Responding to news that Labour had withdrawn its support for Ali, Daniel Sugarman, Director of Public Affairs for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote on X, formerly Twitter: "I understand that decision. And it makes sense.

"I am, however, extremely worried that George Galloway - perhaps the most hideous individual in politics- will now win the seat, unless there is some sort of unified campaign to defeat him."

A spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism echoed these concerns, telling Yahoo News: "George Galloway is an inflammatory firebrand with an atrocious record of baiting the Jewish community.

"He has previously and infamously declared Bradford an 'Israel-free zone', said of his previous election loss that 'the venal, the vile, the racists and the Zionists will all be celebrating', and was sacked by TalkRadio in connection with allegedly 'antisemitic views'.

"His endurance in our public life serves to ... divide communities."

Galloway was cleared by police over his Bradford comments after an investigation. He has also vociferously denied making antisemitic comments in the past. In 2008 he won a libel action against the Jewish station Jcom Radio after a presenter played a spoof character that indicated he was antisemitic. He also strongly denied holding antisemitic views or making comments that contributed to such views during an appearance on Question Time in 2015.

Galloway's presence on the ballot has previously sparked criticism, with senior Conservative MP Robert Jenrick saying of Ali and Galloway on Sunday: "Both are totally unfit for office. Both will win thousands of votes. It’s a damning indictment of the political left and where we are as a country."

A spokesperson for the Board of Deputies of British Jews told Yahoo News: "Any party with a genuine dedication to fighting bigotry cannot support candidates espousing vile conspiracy theories. Labour have made the right decision in withdrawing support for Mr Ali."

Yahoo News has approached Galloway for comment.

Labour candidate for Rochdale, Azhar Ali (left), is joined by Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham in Rochdale town centre as he launches his campaign for the up-coming Rochdale by-election, triggered by the death of Sir Tony Lloyd. Picture date: Wednesday February 7, 2024.
Azhar Ali campaigning with Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham in Rochdale town centre earlier this month. (PA)

Labour and the Muslim vote

The situation in Rochdale illustrates the issues faced by Labour when it comes to the Muslim vote.

The party was dogged by accusations of antisemitism when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, which Starmer has pledged to "root out" of the party.

However, Starmer's stance on the Gaza conflict following the 7 October attacks has sparked discontent from within his own party over his reluctance to push for a total and immediate cessation of hostilities between the warring sides.

In a major rebellion in the House of Commons in November, 56 Labour MPs defied Starmer to vote in favour of a ceasefire. On Saturday, the Guardian reported that some MPs were growing increasingly concerned about a wave of independent candidates standing against them in the general election, which is due this year.

A poll last week by Survation for the Labour Muslim Network found that only 60% of British Muslims who backed Labour at the last general election would do so again, with the group describing the current situation as a "crisis point for the future" of the relationship between the British Muslim community and the Labour Party.

However, Rob Ford, Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester, wrote in November: "This concern looks so far to be overstated, for several reasons. Firstly, the only rigorous opinion poll of Muslim voters conducted since the conflict started, fielded by Savanta in late October and early November, found overwhelming support for Labour among Muslim voters, with 64% of respondents backing the party.

"Other questions in the poll provided some causes for concern, however. Muslim respondents were not impressed with Starmer’s performance on the Gaza crisis – nearly half were dissatisfied with the Labour leader’s response, while only one in five were satisfied. More than 40% of Muslims said Starmer’s handling of the crisis made them less likely to vote Labour, while 20% said it increased the chances they would vote Labour.

Who is George Galloway?

GRETNA GREEN, SCOTLAND - APRIL 20: George Galloway leader of the All For Unity Party campaigns during the Scottish Parliament election with a speech at the Gretna Gateway Outlet on April 20, 2021 in Gretna, Scotland. Mr Galloway visited Gretna with his wife Gayatri, where he gave a speech slamming First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Galloway founded the Workers Party of Britain in 2019. (Getty)

George Galloway was born in Dundee, Scotland, and became the youngest ever chair of the Scottish Labour Party in 1981.

During his career he has served as an MP on multiple occasions - as Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin (1987-1997) and as Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow (2010-2015) and Bradford West (2012-2015). He went on to found the the minor political party Workers Party of Britain in 2019 and remains leader of that party.

He is perhaps best known for his vociferous opposition to the 2003 Iraq war, during which he urged British troops to disobey illegal orders - one of the reasons behind his expulsion from the Labour Party.

In 2019 he was sacked from a presenting role on TalkRadio after he tweeted that there would be ‘no Israel flags on the cup’ after Tottenham Hotspur’s defeat in the semi-finals of the Champions League.

Galloway also appeared on the fourth series of reality TV programme Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, when he famously licked imaginary milk, whilst pretending to be a cat, from actress Rula Lenska's hands.