Why has UK’s Labour Party suspended two election candidates over Gaza war?

The party has become embroiled in yet another row over anti-Semitism amid Israel’s war on Gaza.

Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer has suspended two parliamentary candidates over allegations of anti-Semitism [File: Hollie Adams/Reuters]

The British Labour Party, currently the odds-on favourite to win the next UK general election, found itself on the back foot this week when two of its parliamentary candidates were suspended by Keir Starmer, the party’s leader.

Starmer took the decision to suspend Azhar Ali and Graham Jones, on Monday and Tuesday respectively, after claims emerged that they made anti-Semitic remarks about the Israeli state at a Labour meeting in northwest England just weeks after the Hamas assault on southern Israel on October 7.

Mike Katz, the national chair of the Labour Party-affiliated Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), said that every party member present at the meeting “ought to be suspended pending investigation”.

But, for many, the row has also raised questions about whether Starmer is trying to stifle any criticism of Israel at all, despite its forces having killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians since it began its bombardment of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip four months ago.

What are the allegations?

The controversy began when a UK newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, reported that Ali had said Israel had “effectively green-lighted” the deadly Hamas attack, in which 1,139 Israelis were killed, as a pretext to invade and occupy Gaza.

Labour initially stood by Ali, who was to be the party’s candidate at a by-election in Rochdale, northern England, on February 29, after he apologised for his comments. But it cut ties with him on Monday after further allegations were made.

Former Member of Parliament Jones, who was chosen to contest his old seat of Hyndburn in Lancashire as a Labour candidate in the next UK general election, was suspended after allegedly uttering an expletive about Israel, and after stating that British citizens who had volunteered their services for the Israeli military “should be locked up”.

Why is this such a sensitive subject for the Labour Party?

Starmer became Labour Party leader in 2020 following the resignation of his socialist predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

During his time as Labour leader, Corbyn, a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights, was repeatedly accused by his detractors of doing little to address claims of anti-Semitism within the party.

When Starmer assumed the helm of Labour four years ago, he pledged to “tear out this poison [Labour Party anti-Semitism] by its roots”.

“Keir Starmer set out to distance himself from Jeremy Corbyn from the moment he was elected Labour leader,” James Mitchell, professor at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science, told Al Jazeera.

But, he added, “at times, it has seemed that Labour’s leader has been more intent on opposing a caricature of Jeremy Corbyn than the real Jeremy Corbyn in order to maximise the sense that Labour has changed.”

Azhar Ali
The UK’s opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn speaks beside the then-Labour candidate for Pendle, Azhar Ali, during a general election campaign event in Nelson, UK, on December 10, 2019 [Andrew Yates/Reuters]

Indeed, many worry that today’s Labour Party has become a political movement largely intolerant of voices seeking to condemn Israel and to hold it to account for its actions in Gaza.

Starmer himself has come under fire for his failure to call for an immediate ceasefire in the Palestinian enclave where some two million people have also been displaced from their homes as a result of Israel’s relentless bombardment.

“Any decent person wants to root out anti-Semitism but Starmer and the Labour right weaponised it against the Corbyn left, long-term supporters of Palestinian rights,” Simon Pia, a former spin doctor for the Labour Party at the UK’s devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, told Al Jazeera.

He added, “Now, Starmer is boxed in, as any criticism of Israel can be smeared as anti-Semitic. But his support for Israel creates a problem, not just with the left and Muslim supporters, but anyone appalled by what many international bodies, such as the ICJ, have termed ‘genocide’ in Gaza.”

Why does this matter so much to Labour now?

While a UK general election must next be held no later than January 28, 2025, it seems likely that one will be called by the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party prime minister, Rishi Sunak, sometime this year.

Thus, the stakes for the Labour Party, which has long been on an election footing, seem high. The party has been in opposition for 14 years and has suffered three general election losses in a row since it ceded power to the Conservative Party in 2010.

Starmer is Labour’s third opposition party leader during this period, but a victory at the next UK general election would see Labour replace the Conservatives as the UK’s party of government, and see Starmer assume the mantle of prime minister.

Will this row hurt Labour’s election chances?

Some within the party, such as Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, have accused Starmer of taking too long to suspend Azhar Ali.

Despite this, commentators have said that Labour’s consistently commanding position in the opinion polls means Starmer’s job is safe.

“If these issues have an impact [on Labour electorally] then, it seems likely that it will be limited,” said Mitchell.

Sunak, who won the Conservative Party leadership in 2022, became the UK’s fifth prime minister in just six years. But his two years at the helm of his country have done nothing to shift the polls, which suggest that Labour will electorally annihilate Sunak’s Conservatives at the next UK general election.

Indeed, voters appear to have tired of their Conservative government, which, over recent years, has been rocked by scandal and chaos. In themiddle of 2022, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to step down after he was found to have purposefully misled Parliament about parties held during the COVID pandemic, against lockdown rules. This was followed by the calamitous reign of former party leader Liz Truss, whose tax-cutting budget in September 2022 caused a meltdown in the financial markets, forcing her to resign as prime minister after just 44 days in office.

Source: Al Jazeera