Labour’s decision to withdraw support for its candidate at the Rochdale byelection in the wake of controversial comments about the 7 October Hamas attacks has been “shambolic”, the senior lawyer who compiled a report on the party’s culture has said.
On Monday, the party withdrew its support for Azhar Ali after the Daily Mail approached Labour with more comments that Ali had made, including a suggestion that Israel deliberately relaxed security after warnings of an imminent threat.
Martin Forde KC was commissioned by Keir Starmer to investigate allegations of bullying, racism and sexism within the party’s ranks after a leaked Labour document made explosive allegations about its handling of antisemitism claims.
Forde has said the party’s change in position in response to Ali’s “very inflammatory” and “clearly antisemitic” remarks “appears shambolic”.
“It seems to me that the moment that anyone says that the Israeli authorities allowed the atrocities to occur, that has to bring their judgment into question,” Forde told BBC’s Radio 4’s Today programme.
“One does have to question how such individuals are selected in the first place and also the disparity in treatment because one of the things that concerned us when we talked about weaponisation was certainly the perception that antisemitism was along factional lines.”
When asked if Labour should have withdrawn support Ali at the point the comments first surfaced in the Mail on Sunday, Forde said: “That to me would be the sensible thing to do.”
In 2022, Forde published a 139-page report accusing Labour of “operating a hierarchy of racism or of discrimination”. Labour was urged to implement 165 recommendations, many of which the party says it has followed.
The report found that under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, antisemitism was often used as a “factional weapon” by his critics and denied by his supporters. It also found that some of the attitudes expressed towards black, Asian and minority ethnic MPs in private WhatsApp messages among staffers hostile to Corbyn represented “over and underlying racism and sexism”.
A year after the report’s publication, Forde accused Labour of not taking anti-black racism and Islamophobia as seriously as antisemitism within the party.
When asked by the BBC if he thought that someone the Labour leadership did not like was treated more harshly than someone such as Azhar Ali whom it would prefer to give the benefit of the doubt, Forde said: “It’s difficult for me to say that.”
He said: “Perception was the thing that concerned myself and the peers that assisted me. If you want a fair and transparent system, it has to deal with people consistently.”
After comments Ali had made soon after the 7 October attacks appeared over the weekend, senior party MPs and members urged the leadership to confirm that Ali would be disciplined if he won the byelection.
Other Labour MPs and members called the party’s support of Ali a “huge and disappointing shift” from Starmer’s promises of taking a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism and all forms of racism.
In line with electoral law, Ali will stand as a Labour candidate on the ballot paper, as the deadline to replace him with another candidate passed on 2 February. If elected, he will not hold the party whip and will sit as an independent MP.
Forde added: “I’m aware, from discussions with some of the MPs within the party who might be described as more left-leaning, that they feel when it comes to disciplinary action taken against them, things move rather slowly, but if you’re in the right faction of the party, as it were, then things are either dealt with more leniently or more swiftly.”
He said that while this could not be quantified, the party should reassure members and voters that people “will be treated fairly”.
Louise Ellman, who resigned from the Labour in 2019 and criticised Corbyn over a “seeming tolerance of antisemitism”, said the party had taken the right decision to withdraw support from Ali.
She told Today she thought his comments were “at odds” with her experience of him over the past 20 years, when she said he had consistently spoken out about extremism and antisemitism.
“When I looked at his apology, I could see it was a proper apology,” Ellman said. “I think the situation was complicated by the Rochdale byelection and the legal inability to Labour to put a different candidate up.”
Andrew Fisher, Labour’s policy director under Corbyn, said Labour’s handling of the matter “reveals a double standard”.
“That doesn’t apply to people who are on the left, ever,” Fisher told the BBC. “I think that’s something Martin Forde highlighted as well in his report, which is that these disciplinary processes are used for factional reasons within the Labour party and that results in people like Azhar Ali being given the benefit of the doubt.”
Labour has been approached for comment.