Labour has withdrawn its support for Azhar Ali, its candidate for the Rochdale byelection, over remarks he made about Israel and the 7 October attack.
But under electoral law, Ali will still appear on the ballot as the Labour candidate on Thursday 29 February.
A recording of a meeting of the Lancashire Labour party was leaked to the Mail on Sunday over the weekend, in which Ali was reportedly heard saying Israel had deliberately relaxed security after receiving warnings of the impending attack.
Ali apologised “unreservedly to the Jewish community” for the comments, which he acknowledged were “deeply offensive, ignorant and false”.
After 36 hours defending Ali, Labour withdrew its support on Monday following further revelations, instructing campaigners in Rochdale to halt leafleting and social media activity on Ali’s behalf. But with the byelection a little over two weeks away, Labour cannot replace him with another candidate.
Why can’t Labour replace Ali?
Election Commission rules state that a candidate can only withdraw from a race via a withdrawal notice delivered by 4pm, 19 working days before the poll. The deadline for the Rochdale byelection, which will be a key test for Keir Starmer’s party, passed on 2 February.
Can a candidate withdraw past the deadline?
Nope. “After the withdrawal deadline it is not possible to withdraw from the election, and your name will appear on the ballot paper,” the rules state. “If the election is uncontested, you will be declared elected.”
What can a party do?
Once the deadline for an election has passed, there is very little a party that wishes to remove a candidate from the ballot can do.
They can withdraw their support, as Labour has, and advise constituents to not vote for the candidate – but that candidate will still appear on the ballot paper for the party they were registered with at the deadline. Any postal votes that have already been cast for that candidate are still counted, too.
They could also endorse a candidate from a different party. While far from an official position, one local Labour insider said that some activists in Rochdale will seriously consider throwing their support behind Simon Danczuk, the disgraced former Labour MP, in an attempt to prevent a victory for George Galloway, who is running as a Workers party candidate in the byelection.
What happens next?
Ali will be listed as the Labour candidate on the ballot paper. If elected, however, he will not hold the party whip and will sit as an independent MP.