David Rose

Complacency, dithering and chaos: shame on Labour

After the Rochdale affair, Starmer and his party need to learn some painful lessons quickly


Labour candidate for Rochdale, Azhar Ali launches his by-election campaign in Rochdale, February 7, 2024 (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

February 16, 2024 14:39

To lose one parliamentary candidate, as Oscar Wilde didn’t quite say, may be regarded as a misfortune. But to lose two, after both have been recorded making shocking comments about Israel and Jews at the same political meeting, looks like carelessness. Unfortunately for Keir Starmer, that is the position in which the Labour Party finds itself this week.

First came there came complacency. When I revealed in the JC a week ago that Azhar Ali, the party’s candidate at the Rochdale by-election later this month, was a trustee of the Sultania mosque in Brierfield, which had hosted preachers who had voiced support for terrorism, I was contacted by a very important Labour grandee. He claimed I had got things wrong. “I am told he is rock solid,” this individual said. I suspect that kind of snow job being emitted by the party machine explains why my story was not widely followed-up.

Then came dithering. When the Mail on Sunday revealed that at the fateful party meeting in October Ali had made the foul insinuation that Israel had deliberately allowed Hamas to butcher and raped its own citizens on October 7 in order to legitimise a genocidal assault on Gaza, the party did nothing for almost two days, only suspending Ali’s membership late on Monday evening, after further outrageous comments by him had emerged concerning the influence of Jews in the media.

The final stage was despairing chaos: the disclosure by the Guido Fawkes website that a second Labour parliamentary candidate, the former MP Graham Jones, had been at the same meeting, where he referred to “f***ing Israel” and said Britons who served in the IDF should be “locked up”. This time, at least, the Labour leadership acted swiftly, suspending Jones as well. I think it is fair to assume his name will not be staining ballot papers any time soon.

So what on earth is going on? For many months now, we have been told that Labour has cleaned up its act, and that the bad old days under Jeremy Corbyn, which led to a damning report on the party’s handling of antisemitism from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, truly lay in the past.

Have we all been bamboozled, and do Jews have just as much to fear from a Labour victory as they did in 2019?

I don’t think we have. I am convinced, and have said so many times, that Starmer is sincere in his desire to root out antisemitism: after all, the man is the husband and father of Jews. I also believe that vetting of the party’s candidates has been, in general, exacting, and that very few hard left, anti-Zionist retreads have been allowed through the net.

But as my grandee friend was big enough to admit to me after Ali’s comments at the meeting were exposed, the system is not infallible, and in Ali’s case, it “seems you may be nearer the truth”.

One of the most depressing aspects of all this is something that is still too difficult to mention in sections of polite society: that the places where politicians are most likely to say vile things about Jews are those with large Muslim populations, where far too many voters have been conditioned by preachers such as those who give Jew-hating sermons at the Sultania mosque.

It's a fact that “rock solid” Ali was once a campaigner against extremism, and advised New Labour governments about it for five years. So if we were to be charitable, and prepared to conclude that he may merely be unprincipled, we could observe that he happened to think some inflammatory comments about Israel would help him get selected and win him votes.

The case of Jones, is, if anything, more depressing still. It suggests that despite the vigilance exercised by Starmer, there are far too many on the old, white, “anti-Imperialist” left who instinctively assume the worst of Jews and Israel, and ultimately share the view that the Jewish state is a “settler-colonialist” entity that, ideally, should not exist.

One consequence of these torrid events is that “Gaza George” Galloway (as he now, apparently, styles himself) is now other odds-on favourite to win the Rochdale by-election.

There is no getting round the fact that this is a baleful prospect. Whether you like or loathe Galloway, and I loathe him very much indeed, he is a stunningly effective orator, a brutal verbal pugilist who will seize every chance he gets to batter Israel and its Jewish supporters in Parliament. This, I suggest, explains why Labour dithered for so long over Ali: until he was finally suspended, the Jewish Labour Movement and some of its most eminent members were telling the leadership that the Galloway alternative would be much, much worse.

Meanwhile, Starmer is aware that he and his party need to learn some painful lessons quickly. On Friday, a Times opinion poll said only 3 per cent of voters thought he had finished the job on tackling antisemitism, and 26 per cent that he had made good progress - slightly more, in fairness to him, than the 23 per cent who said he failed to tackle it all. (Ten per cent thought there was no problem in the first place, 6 per cent said “none of the above” and the largest group of all, at 32 per cent, were “don’t knows”.)

It’s heartening that with the victory of Labour’s Jewish candidate Damien Egan in the Kingswood by-election on Thursday, a very different sort of Labour Party was on show. Nevertheless, Starmer and his colleagues must suspect that for many Jews, they are now in the last chance saloon. One lost candidate, a misfortune; two maybe carelessness. But a third? That would be a catastrophe.

February 16, 2024 14:39

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