Graham Jones: UK's Labour suspends MP over anti-Israel comments

Labour candidate said British people who volunteer to fight with the Israeli military should be locked up

Graham Jones. Photo: Chris McAndrew / Wikicommons
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Keir Starmer was keen to distance himself from suspended Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali on Tuesday, as new revelations threatened to reignite the row.

Former Labour MP Graham Jones was recorded using derogatory words about Israel at the same meeting that led to the withdrawal of support for Mr Ali, with him also allegedly suggesting British people who volunteer to fight with the Israeli military should be “locked up”.

It is understood the Hyndburn candidate has been administratively suspended from the party, pending an investigation, after the report from website Guido.

Labour would have to follow a formal process if the party wish to strip him of his candidacy but he was believed to have been called for an interview on Tuesday evening.

The latest row to emerge from the meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party came only hours after the Mr Starmer insisted the party had changed under his leadership, following the move to strip Mr Ali, who is believed to be suspended pending an investigation.

Mr Ali had apologised after he was recorded in a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party suggesting Israel had taken the October 7 Hamas assault as a pretext to invade Gaza.

But Labour said it moved to end its backing of the candidate “following new information about further comments”.

Speaking as he campaigned in Wellingborough, Mr Starmer said: “Certain information came to light over the weekend in relation to the candidate. There was a fulsome apology. Further information came to light yesterday calling for decisive action, so I took decisive action.

“It is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during the course of a by-election.

“It’s a tough decision, a necessary decision, but when I say the Labour Party has changed under my leadership, I mean it.”

Labour had come under serious pressure after the original remarks emerged, with the comments condemned by figures inside the party as well as by political opponents.

Mr Starmer sought to move his party on from the Jeremy Corbyn era, which was overshadowed by controversies over anti-Semitism.

But the party leadership is now being pressed on why Mr Ali had not immediately been suspended after the comments emerged.

Labour’s handling of the row was branded “shambolic” by the lawyer who led a review into the party’s culture, as the Conservatives also seized on the controversy.

Martin Forde KC said MPs within the party feel there has been a “disparity in treatment” of allegations of anti-Semitism.

Labour withdrew backing for Mr Ali after the Daily Mail reported he had blamed “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” for fuelling criticism of a pro-Palestinian MP.

Left-wing critics of Mr Starmer's leadership accused him of inconsistency in the handling of the allegations.

The party recently suspended the MP Kate Osamor after she appeared to say the Gaza war should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day, for which she later apologised.

Veteran MP Diane Abbott also had the whip withdrawn immediately after suggesting Jewish, Irish and Traveller people are not subject to racism “all their lives” in a letter to The Observer last year.

She apologised and suggested “errors arose” in the drafting of the letter.

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Mr Forde also highlighted the previous cases, saying “things seemed to drag on in terms of disciplining certain elements of the party and be dealt with swiftly in others”.

Mr Starmer on Tuesday denied factionalism had played a role in the handling of complaints or allegations of anti-Semitism.

“I set out four years ago to tear anti-Semitism out of the Labour Party," he said. "It’s the first thing I said I’d do as Labour leader, and to change our party.

“I have taken a series of decisions along those lines, ruthlessly changing our party, and it’s made no difference to me where somebody stands in the Labour Party.

“The change I’ve brought about is a Labour Party that is now back in the service of working people."

He also said any allegations against other Labour councillors present at the event at which Mr Ali made his widely condemned remarks would be “fully investigated by the party”.

A representative for Campaign Against Anti-Semitism said the latest comments attributed to Mr Jones were “not only ignorant but grossly offensive”.

“Labour must make clear that it will not back Graham Jones’s rhetoric and his candidacy.”

Labour’s decision will add considerable uncertainty to the outcome of the Rochdale by-election when voters go to the polls at the end of this month.

Also running in Rochdale are former Labour MP Simon Danczuk, now the Reform Party candidate, and George Galloway, of the Workers Party of Britain, who is campaigning against Labour’s stance on Gaza.

About 20 per cent of the electorate and 30 per cent of the population of the town are Asian, with polls nationally suggesting Labour’s vote could be hit by Asian people unhappy with the party over Palestine and its perceived support for Israel.

If elected, Mr Ali will sit as an independent MP and will not receive the party whip.

The decision means Labour will also need to find a new candidate to contest the seat at the next general election.

The Tories sought to pile further pressure on Mr Starmer over the row, even after the decision to ditch Mr Ali as a candidate.

“Sir Keir Starmer says he’s taken tough and decisive action over Labour’s candidate in Rochdale," Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said.

“But the truth is that this shouldn’t be tough – it should be the simplest thing to do the right thing and stand up against anti-Semitism.

“And it clearly is not decisive because Labour have been backing their man throughout this and have only done yet another U-turn because of the headlines.

“How can the public, and particularly the Jewish community, have any trust in Labour when Keir Starmer seems to be protecting those who heard what was said and did nothing?”

Updated: February 14, 2024, 7:55 AM