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Former leader takes charge after suspension of Azhar Ali

Posted on - 25th February, 2024 - 9:00am | Author - | Posted in - Politics, Preston News
County Hall in Preston. Pic: Blog Preston
County Hall in Preston. Pic: Blog Preston

The former leader of Lancashire County Council has taken temporary charge of the authority’s Labour opposition group following the suspension of Azhar Ali.

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Jennifer Mein ran the authority when the party was last in control of County Hall between 2013 and 2017.

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The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands that she has now been installed as acting Labour leader in the wake of the controversy that engulfed County Cllr Ali earlier this month when a recording emerged of him suggesting Israel had deliberately relaxed its security ahead of the October 7th terror attack on the country to give it the green light to wage war against Hamas in Gaza.

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A report of those remarks – made in the weeks after the attack – was published during the campaign for next week’s Rochdale by-election, in which he had been selected as the Labour candidate.  The national party initially rebuked County Cllr Ali – who apologised “unreservedly” for his comments – but continued to back him, until further quotes came to light.

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At that point, Labour withdrew its support for his candidacy and was also reported to have suspended him from the party pending an internal investigation.   He is now listed as an independent member of the county council.

Jennifer Mein
Jennifer Mein

The LDRS understands that the Labour group at County Hall is planning a leadership election, but no timetable has yet been set for it – with County Cllr Mein taking the reins in the meantime.  News of her return to the top of the Lancashire party came shortly before the county council’s annual budget-setting meeting on Friday.

Labour’s deputy opposition leader at County Hall, Lorraine Beavers, will remain in that post.  She is the party’s parliamentary candidate for the newly-formed Blackpool North and Fleetwood constituency at the next general election.

County Cllr Mein, who represents the Preston South East division at the county council, is also the cabinet member for health and wellbeing at Labour-controlled Preston City Council.

She was first elected to the county authority in 2005 and became opposition group leader during the 2009-2013 Conservative administration.   For the next eight years – in both opposition and then as council leader – she regularly went toe-to-toe with the then Conservative county council group leader, Geoff Driver, whom she toppled in the 2013 local elections, before he did the same to her at the 2017 poll.

County Cllr Ali took over the Labour group leadership after that result and had remained in charge of the opposition group until his suspension.

It was initially reported by the Mail on Sunday that his comments about Israel had been made at a Lancashire Labour Party meeting.  However, it later emerged that they were recorded at a public gathering.

He was quoted by the paper as having said of the October 7th attack, in which around 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 200 kidnapped:  “The Egyptians are saying that they warned Israel ten days earlier…. Americans warned them a day before [that] there’s something happening… They deliberately took the security off, they allowed… that massacre that gives them the green light to do whatever they bloody want.”

County Cllr Ali, who represents the Nelson East division on the county council, was also reported of saying at the same meeting:  “People in the media from certain Jewish quarters” were “giving crap” about MP Andy McDonald, who was suspended by Labour after he used the phrase “between the river and the sea” in a speech during a rally.

After the first report was published – and prior to his suspension – County Cllr Ali said in an apology statement that his initially-reported remarks were “deeply offensive, ignorant and false”.

He added: “Hamas’ horrific terror attack was the responsibility of Hamas alone – and they are still holding hostages who must be released.

“October 7th was the greatest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust – and Jews in the UK and across the world are living in fear of rising antisemitism.

“I will urgently apologise to Jewish leaders for my inexcusable comments.”

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