Starmer says Rochdale decision ‘tough but necessary’ for Labour – UK politics live


Starmer: ‘tough’ but ‘necessary’ decision to withdraw support from Rochdale byelection candidate

Keir Starmer has said he took “tough” and “decisive” action to withdraw support for Labour’s Rochdale by-election candidate.

Speaking while campaigning in Wellingborough, where there is a byelection on Thursday, 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.

Keir Starmer campaigns with Labour's Wellingborough byelection candidate Gen Kitchen at AFC Rushden & Diamonds.
Keir Starmer campaigns with Labour’s Wellingborough byelection candidate Gen Kitchen at AFC Rushden & Diamonds. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Getty Images

Starmer said any allegations against other Labour councillors present at the event at which Azhar Ali made his remarks would be “fully investigated by the party”. He said:

Those comments were appalling and that is why we took decisive action. It is virtually unprecedented to withdraw support for a candidate in the way I withdrew support from this candidate yesterday. That’s what a changed Labour Party is all about. Of course, any allegation will be fully investigated by the party, but the important thing is the decisive action that’s been taken to make it absolutely clear that this is a changed Labour Party.

Responding to accusations that factionalism had played a part in Labour’s handling of the case, the opposition leader said:

I set out four years ago to tear antisemitism out of the Labour Party. 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.

Key events

Keir Starmer was campaigning in Wellingborough, where Labour has been odds-on to overturn the majority of more than 18,000 won by disgraced former Conservative MP Peter Bone in 2019.

As Toby Helm noted last weekend, “The circumstances of Bone’s departure and subsequent selection of his partner Helen Harrison as the Tory candidate to replace him, have left local people angry and disillusioned. Tory MPs are refusing to campaign in Wellinborough for fear of being ridiculed and insulted, and because they think it would be a complete waste of their time.”

That byelection, and the one in Kingswood are on Thursday. The Rochdale byelection takes place on 29 February.

Historical share of the vote in Wellingborough

Andrew Fisher, one of the architects of Labour’s 2017 manifesto, has said Labour “have made the correct decision” over Azhar Ali candidacy in Rochdale, but argued that it highlights fundamental problems with the party’s processes.

Fisher, who quit as an advisor to Jeremy Corbyn prior to the 2019 election, told Sky News:

They should have done it straight away when the first allegation against him was raised on Sunday. Instead, they were out canvassing for him on Sunday and sent shadow cabinet members all around the media, including Sky News, to defend him, as if this was some kind of one-off error he had made.

Of course, further allegations have come out. There clearly wasn’t due diligence done on this candidate to have highlighted this in advance. It shows the double standards there are when tackling serious issues of racism and conspiracy theories within the party.

The UK government has confirmed details of a £3.3bn funding package to support the restored powersharing administration in Northern Ireland.

PA Media reports the settlement was outlined in a letter to Stormont finance minister Caoimhe Archibald.

The government described it as a “significant, fair and generous” package, which includes a requirement for the executive to deliver a balanced budget for 2024/25 that includes a minimum of £113m raised through locally generated income.

Northern Ireland secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris said: “This package tackles the immediate budget pressures facing the restored executive and allows it to take action to rapidly stabilise public services, while increasing opportunities for investment and improved infrastructure.”

PA Media is carrying this list of elements of the package:

  • reform of the Barnett formula for allocating Treasury funds to Northern Ireland, with funding rates for the region set at 24% above comparative rates in England. The government said this would reflect the “different levels of need in Northern Ireland”.

  • a £1bn fund to stabilise Stormont’s public finances.

  • £34m to tackle hospital waiting lists.

  • funds to help meet public sector pay demands in the current financial year.

  • increase the Executive’s annual capital borrowing limit by 10% in 2024/25, a limit which will then increase annually in line with inflation.

The prospect of raising additional revenue has become a thorny topic. First minister Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin) yesterday ruled out introducing water charges in Northern Ireland, saying “I’m saying very clearly that you can’t burden people who are living through a cost of living crisis with additional household bills whilst their public services are declining.”

Deputy first minister Emma Little-Pengelly (DUP) had said it was not write to ask people to pay more for “poor public services”. The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole said there should greater clarity on what had been agreed with the government in Westminster.

Starmer: ‘tough’ but ‘necessary’ decision to withdraw support from Rochdale byelection candidate

Keir Starmer has said he took “tough” and “decisive” action to withdraw support for Labour’s Rochdale by-election candidate.

Speaking while campaigning in Wellingborough, where there is a byelection on Thursday, 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.

Keir Starmer campaigns with Labour’s Wellingborough byelection candidate Gen Kitchen at AFC Rushden & Diamonds. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Getty Images

Starmer said any allegations against other Labour councillors present at the event at which Azhar Ali made his remarks would be “fully investigated by the party”. He said:

Those comments were appalling and that is why we took decisive action. It is virtually unprecedented to withdraw support for a candidate in the way I withdrew support from this candidate yesterday. That’s what a changed Labour Party is all about. Of course, any allegation will be fully investigated by the party, but the important thing is the decisive action that’s been taken to make it absolutely clear that this is a changed Labour Party.

Responding to accusations that factionalism had played a part in Labour’s handling of the case, the opposition leader said:

I set out four years ago to tear antisemitism out of the Labour Party. 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.

Sadiq Khan’s London Plan for housing works to “frustrate rather than facilitate the delivery of new homes”, a report commissioned by Michael Gove has said.

The review of the mayor’s strategy, published on Tuesday, said the consequences of housing under-delivery have significant economic, societal and personal impacts, particularly on those who face no alternative but to live in temporary accommodation, or are forced into poor-quality rental accommodation, PA reports.

The report also said:

Public and private sector stakeholders are clear in their view that the London Plan is not the sole source of the problem: wider macro-economic conditions; fire safety; infrastructure constraints; statutory consultees; viability difficulties; and planning resourcing pressures have all contributed.

However, there is persuasive evidence that the combined effect of the multiplicity of policies in the London Plan now works to frustrate rather than facilitate the delivery of new homes, not least in creating very real challenges to the viability of schemes.”

The ONS has published data showing that the current government has presided over the highest total number of working days lost to strikes during a 19 month period for 30 years.

5.05m days are estimated to have been lost in labour disputes in the UK from June 2022 to December 2023, the highest since 5.34m days were lost from July 1989 to January 1991.

Some disputes remain unresolved, including those involving junior doctors and some train unions.

Updated at 

First minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill has paid tribute to Francie Molloy, who has announced this morning that he is stepping away from politics. He has been Sinn Féin MP for Mid Ulster since 2013, having first been elected as a local councillor in 1985.

I will not be seeking re-selection for the next election.

Representing Sinn Féin and the people of Mid Ulster for the past 39 years has been the greatest honour of my life.

I pass on the baton to a new generation with confidence.

It’s been a long road, but we’re almost there. pic.twitter.com/gqNMnKDX4h

— Francie Molloy MP (@FrancieMolloy) February 13, 2024

In her tribute, O’Neill said “Francie Molloy has made a huge contribution to politics and the peace process here. He was heavily involved in the early civil rights movement, including the protest outside the Caledon Squat in 1968 which is often considered as the spark for people in their demand for better housing, better jobs, and civil rights. Francie has been involved in political activism his entire adult life, and has been elected many times … I have worked closely with Francie for many years and I’m confident that though he is retiring, he will continue to make a contribution in promoting equality for all in the time ahead.”

Eleni Courea

David Cameron is expected to meet his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, this weekend for the first time since unexpectedly becoming British foreign secretary. The Foreign Office has pencilled in a meeting between Cameron and Wang at the Munich security conference, according to two government sources.

Read more here: David Cameron to have first meeting with Chinese foreign minister

Henry Dyer

Henry Dyer

The Conservative MP David Duguid failed to declare his wife’s £50,000 shareholding in BP while speaking in debates about windfall taxes on the oil and gas industry, the parliamentary commissioner has found.

The parliamentary commissioner for standards carried out an investigation into the MP for Banff and Buchan and former Scotland Office minister after the Guardian revealed Duguid’s wife’s shareholdings.

Parliamentary rules require MPs to declare while speaking in debates the financial interests of a spouse or other family member, where there could be considered a conflict. MPs have to register shares they own worth £70,000 or more than 15%, and any other interests that might “reasonably be thought by others to influence a member’s actions”. Duguid has never disclosed his wife’s financial interest in the House of Commons register.

The Guardian’s analysis of BP’s share register suggested Duguid, who worked for 25 years in the oil and gas industry, including 10 years with BP, had moved his shares into his wife’s name five years before his election as an MP.

The commissioner found three debates in 2023 in which Duguid ought to have declared an interest, noting that in these debates the shareholding “might reasonably be thought by others to influence [his] words or actions as a member”.

Duguid told the commissioner that he did not believe “anything I could have, let alone actually, said or did as a member of parliament could have had any bearing on the BP share price”.

The commissioner decided that Duguid’s repeated failures to declare the interest were “inadvertent” and the result of a misunderstanding about the rules. The commissioner required Duguid to apologise and to attend training on the parliamentary rules on declaration of interests.

Read more here: Tory MP David Duguid failed to declare wife’s BP shares during oil and gas debates

Geneva Abdul

Geneva Abdul

Here is my colleague Geneva Abdul’s report on the reaction this morning to Labour pulling its support from its Rochdale byelection candidate:

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.

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.”

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. 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.

Read more of Geneva Abdul’s report here: Labour handling of Azhar Ali ‘shambolic’, says antisemitism report author

I mentioned earlier that housing minister Lee Rowley got in a dig at London Mayor Sadiq Khan during his media round while trying to promote the government’s plan for housing. Khan had his own promo clip about housebuilding in London out this morning too.

The housing crisis is the greatest challenge facing the capital today. We’re breaking records for homebuilding in London, but there’s much more to do. See what we’re doing to give Londoners the good-quality homes they need. pic.twitter.com/DQoYZ1FPxE

— Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (@MayorofLondon) February 13, 2024

Also campaigning on video today is the Reform UK’s deputy leader Ben Habib. He is standing in the Wellingborough byelection on Thursday for recalled MP Peter Bone’s old seat, and is arguing today that the quickest way to address the cost of living crisis in the country is to ditch any pretence of a drive for net zero.

The easiest way to cut the cost of living is to ditch Net Zero.

The policy has nothing to do with saving the planet. All it will do is drive us into bankruptcy.

Vote @reformparty_uk; vote for me if you agree Net Zero must go.

pic.twitter.com/z91uwB5hr8

— Ben Habib (@benhabib6) February 13, 2024

I’ve noticed a few people in the comments – see, I do read them – asking what happened with the Green candidate in Rochdale, Guy Otten. My colleague Helen Pidd mentioned this in her analysis piece last night. He stepped aside after “what he described as his ‘regrettable’ social media remarks about Gaza and Muslims” emerged.

Last week he said:

The Green message is too urgent and too important to be distracted by some regrettable social media posts I made a number of years ago. In the interests of the Green party I have decided to leave the stage. As nominations have now closed, my name will still appear on the ballot. However, I will not take part in any media interviews or join any platforms for hustings, and neither will I be involved in any campaigning.

The postings on Twitter were made in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

The party said:

We do not comment on disciplinary matters regarding Green party members. These are internal matters. However, we are clear, we condemn all forms of racism and discrimination and do not accept it from any Green party representative or spokesperson.

Rishi Sunak gave some reaction to the news about Labour withdrawing its support for Rochdale byelection candidate Azhar Ali last night as the prime minister was conducting an hour long Q&A on GB News.

He said the Labour party had not changed under Keir Starmer, saying “[Starmer has] stood by and sent cabinet ministers to support [Ali], until literally five minutes before I walked on tonight, under enormous media pressure, has decided to change his mind on principle. No principles at all. So no the Labour Party hasn’t changed. It’s a con.”

Labour’s statement on the withdrawal read:

Following new information about further comments made by Azhar Ali coming to light today, the Labour Party has withdrawn its support for Azhar Ali as our candidate in the Rochdale by-election. Keir Starmer has changed Labour so that it is unrecognisible from the party of 2019. We understand that these are highly unusual circumstances but it is vital that any candidate put forward by Labour fully represents its aims and values. Given that nominations have now closed Azhar Ali cannot be replaced as the candidate.

That means that Rochdale will have a choice of the following candidates on 29 February:

  • Azhar Ali (Labour, but no longer backed by the party)

  • Mark Coleman (Independent)

  • Simon Danczuk (Reform UK)

  • Iain Donaldson (Lib Dem)

  • Paul Ellison (Conservative)

  • George Galloway (Workers party)

  • Michael Howarth (Independent)

  • William Howarth (Independent)

  • Guy Otten (Green, but no longer backed by the party)

  • Ravin Rodent Subortna (Monster Raving Loony)

  • David Tully(Independent)

Worth noting as well, with all the focus on Rochdale, that there are two byelections this week, with the Conservatives attempting to defend the constituencies of Kingswood and Wellingborough. Poor results there for Rishi Sunak’s party might very well quickly turn the attention back to potential leadership challenges among the Tory ranks.

Housing minister Lee Rowley was on the media round for the government this morning, hoping to push their new housebuilding plans. He refused, however, to say how many more homes the government hopes will be built, telling the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he would not get into a “numbers game”.

Kiran Stacey reports for us on what the plans entail, writing:

Under the proposals, councils would have to approve new development on brownfield land – land which was previously developed but has fallen into disuse – unless they can offer a good reason why they cannot.

Limits will also be removed on the kinds of former commercial buildings that can be turned into flats, removing restrictions on how big the building can be before a developer has to apply for planning permission.

Ministers will also consult on making it easier for homeowners to extend their houses without seeking planning permission.

Speaking on Times Radio, Rowley said “There’s a lot of progress being made but we need to go further. We got housebuilding up to about 240,000 a year before Covid. We know there are challenges with inflation, we know that housebuilding has slowed down, we’re trying to support that.”

He added: “Of course it’s not perfect, I mean, I wouldn’t claim that was the case.”

Put to him later on the BBC that the Conservative government has failed to meet its 2019 manifesto pledge to build 300,000 new homes a year, he replied: “The government is focused on increasing housing in general and we have made good progress on doing that in the last ten years.”

He also took the opportunity to have a dig at London’s mayor, saying “I don’t have a specific number. What the government is trying to do is change the framework so that there are more that can come forward, so that we can give developers the opportunity to bring more through. You can see when you go around places like London, which has consistently failed to deliver on housing targets, where Sadiq Khan has consistently failed to do that.”

Read more of Kiran Stacey’s report here: Sunak reveals plan to boost brownfield homebuilding in England

The Suella Braverman column in the Telegraph, which they used to generate their lead story in print today, claims that “the desperation to see identity politics in every aspect of our lives is creating a divided society”.

In it, the former home secretary reminisces about childhood holidays in the countryside, and uses those as a backdrop with which to criticise a recent report by Wildlife and Countryside Link which has been framed in some parts of the media as claiming that the countryside environment is racist.

Braverman writes:

To claim that the countryside is racist is one of the most ridiculous examples of Left-wing identity politics. It’s a symptom of a deeper problem within our society – the urge to constantly view everything through the lens of race or gender, plead victimhood and point the finger at an oppressor. Whether it’s the patriarchy, or colonial masters, this desperation to divide society is ripping through our institutions, creating a culture of fear and self-censorship.

At the time of the report a few days ago, head of the Wildlife and Countryside Link Richard Benwell was quoted as saying:

Sadly, evidence shows that people of colour in the UK are more likely to live in areas with less green space and that are more heavily polluted, and at the same time they are significantly less likely to visit natural spaces. There are multiple complex reasons behind this, as well as contemporary well-documented experiences of racism people encounter.

There is economic news this morning – UK pay growth has slowed, albeit by less than expected. My colleague Phillip Inman writes:

The ONS said annual growth in regular earnings, excluding bonuses, was 6.2% in October to December 2023, while pay rises including bonuses was 5.8%.

After wages were adjusted for inflation, the ONS said workers enjoyed a fourth month of real wage increases. Total pay rose on the year by 1.6% above the consumer prices index and regular pay rose on the year by 1.9% in October to December 2023.

The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, said: “It’s good news that real wages are on the up for the sixth month in a row and unemployment remains low, but the job isn’t done. Our tax cuts are part of a plan to get people back to work so we can grow the economy – but we must stick with it.”

Read more here: UK pay growth slows less than expected as workers bid up wages

Here is a quick scoot around the front pages. The Daily Mail leads with its claim that Keir Starmer was “forced” to ditch Labour’s Rochdale candidate after its reporting.

Suella Braverman continues to position herself as a future Tory leader in the Telegraph, imploring that people aren’t made to feel guilty for being white. It is a news write-off of a column she has written for the paper. We’ve seen this model in operation before.

For the Times, the big story is government planning reforms.

The Sun is still fretting about Bill Roche’s tax bill, the Daily Express wheel of headlines landed on dementia today, while the Independent leads on foreign secretary David Cameron’s warning to Israel to halt its assault on Gaza.

For us, the paper lead with the Rochdale byelection story, pressure on Israel over Rafah, and an interview with Esther Ghey by my colleague Helen Pidd.

Updated at 

Labour withdraws support for Rochdale candidate after Israel-Gaza remarks

Labour have opted not to send anybody out on the media round this morning to defend their position on Azhar Ali.

Labour sources said that campaigners in Rochdale were told to stop leafleting and social media activity on Ali’s behalf at 5.30pm yesterday afternoon – an instruction that came from party HQ.

On Monday night, the Daily Mail approached Labour with more comments Ali had made, prompting the action.

Martin Forde, the KC who led a report into Labour which concluded that a culture of factionalism led to a situation where allegations of racism and harassment weren’t being addressed, has spoken though.

He said:

If you want a fair and transparent system then it has to deal with people consistently, and I’m aware from discussions with some of the MPs within the party – who might be described as left-leaning – that they feel that when it comes to disciplinary action taken against them then things move rather slowly, but if you’re in the right faction of the party, as it were, then things are dealt with either more leniently or more swiftly.

Now that’s the perception, I can’t quantify it, but I do think it’s something that leadership should be concerned to, in a away, dilute, or if it is in fact the case, they need to give reassurance to members of the voting public and to their members that people will be treated fairly.

He said Labour MPs Kate Osamor and Diane Abbott both apologised immediately after they were accused of antisemitism, but “things seemed to drag on in terms of disciplining certain elements of the party, and be dealt with swiftly in others”.

Read more from Aletha Adu, Rajeev Syal and Eleni Courea here: Labour withdraws support for Rochdale candidate after Israel-Gaza remarks

Welcome and opening summary …

Good morning. It was meant to be a tough week for Rishi Sunak, with the prospect of unwelcome economic news, two tricky byelections on Thursday, and the Rwanda deportation bill under scrutiny in the House of the Lords. And yet this morning the focus is very much on Keir Starmer and Labour’s decision to withdraw its support for Rochdale candidate Azhar Ali after his Israel-Gaza remarks, after backing him during most of yesterday.

Here are the headlines …

  • Labour has withdrawn its support for Azhar Ali, its candidate for this month’s Rochdale byelection, in the wake of controversial comments he made about the 7 October attacks on Israel. In line with electoral law, Labour cannot replace Ali with another candidate because the deadline passed on 2 February. He will stand as a Labour candidate on the ballot paper, but if elected he will not hold the party whip and will sit as an independent MP.

  • Rishi Sunak has said he is “absolutely committed” to his Rwanda policy during a one-hour Q&A session on GB News in which he insisted he understands the country’s frustrations after 14 years of Conservative-led government. The prime minister told voters that the Rwanda deportations scheme was necessary as a “deterrent” to channel crossings.

  • Sunak’s government is also announcing a series of proposed changes to the planning system on Tuesday to encourage developers to build more homes. It is a mover the Conservatives claim is designed to boost development in urban areas even while housebuilding slumps nationally.

The Commons is in recess. The Lords is sitting from 2.30pm. The Senedd and the Scottish parliament are not sitting. In Stormont there is a plenary session from 10.30am and a business committee meeting from 1pm.

It is Martin Belam here with you today. I do try to read and dip into the comments when I can, but if you want to get my attention the best way is to email me – martin.belam@theguardian.com – especially if you have spotted an error or typo.





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