Labour has withdrawn its support for Pendle's Azhar Ali as the Rochdale by-election candidate following criticism of remarks he made about Israel.

Councillor Ali, who represents Nelson East on Lancashire County Council, apologised after he was recorded suggesting in a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party that Israel had taken the October 7 Hamas assault as a pretext to invade Gaza.

A party spokesperson said: “Following new information about further comments made by Azhar Ali coming to light today, the Labour Party has withdrawn its support for Azhar Ali as our candidate in the Rochdale by-election.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 unrecognisable 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.”

READ MORE: Lancashire County councillor made 'deeply offensive' Israel remarks

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

Sir Keir Starmer has sought to move his party on from the Corbyn era, which was overshadowed by controversies over antisemitism.

But the party leadership had been pressed on why Cllr Ali had not been immediately suspended after the comments emerged.

Labour recently suspended the MP Kate Osamor after she appeared to say the Gaza war should be remembered as genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day.

It is understood Cllr Ali has now been suspended from Labour pending a party investigation.

The decision to withdraw backing for the candidate will come as a blow to the party, which had hoped to retain the seat following the death last month of sitting MP Sir Tony Lloyd.

Cllr Ali apologised to the Jewish community and retracted his remarks, which he described as “deeply offensive, ignorant and false”.

Frontbenchers Lisa Nandy and Anneliese Dodds had been out campaigning for Cllr Ali in the constituency at the weekend.

Earlier shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he believed Cllr Ali, had fallen “for an online conspiracy theory”.

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

Azhar Ali became a county councillor in 2013 before taking on the role of Labour leader for Lancashire County Council. In 2020, he received an OBE for services to the community in the North West. He also had a five year stint as a government advisor, serving under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The by-election for the Rochdale constituency follows the death of Sir Tony Lloyd, aged 73 on 17 January.

Hamas launched an attack on southern Israel on October 7 last year, in which 1,300 people were killed and more than 240 kidnapped. Israel has retaliated with months of attacks on the Gaza Strip, killing and wounding thousands.