Labour’s candidate in Rochdale “fell for an online conspiracy” that led to his remarks over the 7 October attacks in Israel, a shadow minister has said.
Councillor Azhar Ali told a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party in the wake of the atrocity that Israel deliberately allowed the massacre to go ahead to give it the “green light” to invade Gaza.
After his comments were published over the weekend by the Mail On Sunday, he issued an “unreserved” apology, saying they were “deeply offensive, ignorant, and false”.
He and the Labour Party have faced fierce criticism as a result of the remarks, but the councillor remains the party’s candidate for Thursday’s by-election, with the deadline to replace him having long passed.
Asked about Mr Ali’s comments, shadow minister without portfolio, Nick Thomas-Symonds, told Sky News they were “completely wrong… totally unacceptable and they in no way represent the views of the Labour Party”.
However, he claimed the councillor had fallen for an “online conspiracy theory and that does not represent his view”.
Mr Thomas-Symonds added: “What Councillor Ali also said here is that he apologises unreservedly, he retracts the comments.
“And he’s also said, which I think is hugely important, that he understands now the gravity, the scale, the offence that’s been caused and knows he needs to rebuild trust.
“[He has a] huge task ahead of him with the Jewish community and that is what I would now expect him to get on to do.”
The shadow minister also pointed to comments made by Dame Louise Ellman, a former Labour MP who resigned from the party in 2019 over its handling of antisemitism complaints under Jeremy Corbyn – but later rejoined after Sir Keir Starmer took over.
She posted on X that Mr Ali’s comments had repeated “outrageous and deeply offensive conspiracy theories” and it was “right that he has given a full apology”.
But, she added: “I have known Azhar for over twenty years and he consistently supported me when I was subjected to antisemitic attacks.
“I have always found him to be an ally, which makes these comments out of character. He should now have the opportunity to work with the Jewish community to restore the loss of trust his actions have caused.”
However, others in the Jewish community have branded Mr Ali’s remarks as “warped” and “disgraceful”, and fear they could further fuel hostility.
Mr Thomas-Symonds added: “People can get things very wrong. That’s obviously happened here, and Councillor Ali has to learn lessons from that.
“I think that we also take into account his reaction to this in recent days. That is why he continues to be our candidate up there in Rochdale, we’ll continue to campaign up there in Rochdale.”
But Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden said: “Time after time, Sir Keir Starmer says that he’s changed Labour. Time after time we’re seeing that simply isn’t true.
“While vile racist slurs are freely exchanged within Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, it is unfit to hold public office.”
Meanwhile, spokesman for Reform UK, Gawain Towler, said: “I find it absolutely extraordinary that Labour frontbenchers are being sent out to work for this guy, knowing his comments, which are worse than anything people have been suspended for.
“The only thing I can think of is they are terrified of George Galloway so they are trying to out-extreme him. It is truly shocking.”
A spokesman for the Workers Party of Britain said: “Mr Ali has described his own words and views as ‘stupid, ignorant, offensive and false’. Why should anyone vote for him then?
“Our election slogan is ‘For Gaza. For Rochdale’. We are unapologetically pro-Gaza, pro-Palestine. And it is that message which resonates across Rochdale: young and old, white and black.”
The Liberal Democrats have been approached for comment.
Mr Ali, a former government adviser who was made an OBE in 2020 for public service, was selected last month to contest the poll, caused by the death of Sir Tony Lloyd, and is defending a Labour majority of more than 9,000.
See below the full list of candidates and the political parties they represent:
Azhar Ali, Labour Party
Mark Coleman, Independent
Simon Danczuk, Reform UK
Iain Donaldson, Liberal Democrats
Paul Ellison, The Conservative Party Candidate
George Galloway, Workers Party of Britain
Michael Howarth, Independent
William Howarth, Independent
Guy Otten, Green Party
Ravin Subortna, The Official Monster Raving Loony Party
David Tully, Independent