13 mins read

UK politics live: Sunak talks up tax cuts after byelection defeats

Sunak: we can afford to cut taxes during a recession

Rishi Sunak has insisted that his government can afford to cut taxes, despite the country having entered a recession, because “economic conditions have improved”.

Speaking to the media, he said “our plan is working” and he can “give everyone the peace of mind that there is a better future for them and their families”.

He said tax cuts were possible “because of our plan to halve inflation, which has been successful over the past year, and because economic conditions have improved. We have already been able to start cutting taxes for people.”

He continued:

We delivered a significant tax cut at the start of this year, cutting the rate of national insurance from 12% to 10%, now that means someone on an average earnings of about £35,000 is seeing a tax cut worth £450 that hit their payslips in January.

Now that will benefit everyone in work, it demonstrates that our plan is working. And if we stick with that plan, I can give everyone the piece of mind that there is a better future for them and their families ahead, and we can all have a renewed sense of pride in the country.

Sunak is in Harlow today, where he has been meeting the local police force.

British prime minister Rishi Sunak is shown a new electric hybrid deployment police car during a media visit to Harlow police station in Essex.
British prime minister Rishi Sunak is shown a new electric hybrid deployment police car during a media visit to Harlow police station in Essex. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

He told the media that he was making progress on his five key pledges. He said:

We’ve clearly been through a lot over the past couple of years as a country, but I genuinely believe at the start of this year we’re pointing in the right direction.

Now we’re not out of the woods yet, but across all the priorities that I set out we’re making progress.

Inflation has been more than halved, the economy out-performed expectations last year, debt is on track to fall, we’ve cut the number of illegal migrants coming by a third and we’re making progress on the longest waits in the NHS.

Rishi Sunak has insisted that his government can afford to cut taxes, despite the country having entered a recession, because “economic conditions have improved”.

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Speaking to the media, he said “our plan is working” and he can “give everyone the peace of mind that there is a better future for them and their families”.

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He said tax cuts were possible “because of our plan to halve inflation, which has been successful over the past year, and because economic conditions have improved. We have already been able to start cutting taxes for people.”

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He continued:

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We delivered a significant tax cut at the start of this year, cutting the rate of national insurance from 12% to 10%, now that means someone on an average earnings of about £35,000 is seeing a tax cut worth £450 that hit their payslips in January.

\n

Now that will benefit everyone in work, it demonstrates that our plan is working. And if we stick with that plan, I can give everyone the piece of mind that there is a better future for them and their families ahead, and we can all have a renewed sense of pride in the country.

\n

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Sunak is in Harlow today, where he has been meeting the local police force.

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prime minister Rishi Sunak is shown a new electric hybrid deployment police car during a media visit to Harlow police station in Essex.”,”caption”:”British prime minister Rishi Sunak is shown a new electric hybrid deployment police car during a media visit to Harlow police station in Essex.”,”credit”:”Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images”}},{“_type”:”model.dotcomrendering.pageElements.TextBlockElement”,”html”:”

He told the media that he was making progress on his five key pledges. He said:

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We’ve clearly been through a lot over the past couple of years as a country, but I genuinely believe at the start of this year we’re pointing in the right direction.

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Now we’re not out of the woods yet, but across all the priorities that I set out we’re making progress.

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Inflation has been more than halved, the economy out-performed expectations last year, debt is on track to fall, we’ve cut the number of illegal migrants coming by a third and we’re making progress on the longest waits in the NHS.

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Labour leader Keir Starmer said that his party has achieved a decade’s worth of work turning the party around after the last election result to become “credible contenders” at the next one, but added “that is all we are.”

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He told BBC Breakfast:

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I’m proud of the work I’ve done as leader. The progress we’ve now made from the worst results since 1935 to being now credible contenders – and that is all we are – for the 2024 election.

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I have to say, when I took over as leader most people shook my hand and said: “Good luck Keir,” and in the next breath they said: “You will never do this in one five-year parliamentary term.”

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We are trying to do, if you like, what Kinnock, what Smith and Blair did, over 13 or 14 years, in four short years.”

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Rishi Sunak has said the next general election is a choice between himself and Keir Starmer as prime minister, and that a vote for any party other than the Conservatives was a vote to put Starmer in power.

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He told reporters:

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A vote for anyone who isn’t the Conservative candidate, whether that’s Reform or anyone else, is just a vote to put Keir Starmer in power.

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That’s the actual choice at the general election, between me and him, between the Conservatives and Labour.

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Now I believe our plan is working. At the start of this year we’re heading in the right direction, taxes are coming down, inflation is falling, and if we stick with that plan we can deliver everyone a brighter future.

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This week the UK went into recession.

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Keir Starmer says he has told his team that the Labour party must fight for the next general election “like we are five points behind”.

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Appearing on BBC Breakfast and asked if he took the Wellingborough and Kingswood victories as a personal endorsement of his leadership, he said “I don’t tend to personalise it. I’m very proud of that result. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done as leader. I’ve changed the Labour Party, and we brought in a very good result last night. I don’t want to get into the warm bath of saying: ‘Job done.’”

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The Labour leader then said he had told his team to “fight like we’re five points behind”.

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He told BBC Breakfast:

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I think the country is crying out for change. Everybody knows that. Things aren’t working. Their NHS isn’t working. They’ve got a cost of living crisis. I think they’ve concluded that the Tories have failed after 14 years.

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They can see now the Labour party has changed. It’s a different party to the party in 2019. And they can see that we’ve got the answers to their problems, and I was very pleased last night to see that we were clearly getting Tory switchers, in other words, people who hadn’t voted for the Labour party before coming out last night and voting for the Labour party.

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He added: “But I would say this particularly to my team, there is more work to do. There is always more work to do.”

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Pat McFadden, Labour campaign manager, has said that the byelection results in Wellingborough and Kingswood were “fantastic results” but that “the real test is to come later this year”.

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Speaking from Kingswood, he told viewers of Sky News:

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\n

We had a fantastic result last night, overturning a Tory majority of around 11,000 and in Wellingborough an even bigger victory overturning a majority of 18,000. These results are a mark of the progress that the Labour party has made in recent years under Keir Starmer’s leadership. We are back on the pitch in a credible way. So they were fantastic results. But of course, we also know the real test is to come later this year and the general election.

\n

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He said Labour’s chance to show what it would do in power “can only come when the prime minister stops sitting in Number 10, waiting for something to turn up, and actually calls the general election that will give people the choice over the country’s future.”

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He said that people didn’t need statistics to see that the country was in a poor state. He said “people can see it in terms of the cost of living. They can see it in terms of public services. And they can see it in terms of the difficulty of paying the bills.”

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Pressed on what Labour would do differently with the economy, he said:

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First of all financial stability: no repeat of that disastrous Tory mini-budget that crashed the economy and put everybody’s mortgages up.

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Secondly, change the planning laws to get the economy moving again, making it easier for people to invest in the UK and get Britain building again.

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Thirdly, make a success of the green transition. We’re going to set up GB energy, and have a national investment fund to really drive forward this green transition that will give us more energy security and in the long term, reduce people’s bills.

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These are the kinds of things that we need to do to get the economy moving again, because without getting economic growth, it is really difficult for people’s living standards to increase. We know the Tories have failed on that.

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Earlier Jacob Rees-Mogg tried to strike a conciliatory tone with people who voted for Reform UK in these byelections, saying the night had been a good one for what he termed the Conservative family of voters. He suggested that the way to bring them back into the fold was “lower taxation, taking more of the advantages of Brexit, with more of the removal of EU retained law” and “doing less on the green issue that is making people cold and poor, and helping revitalise our economy.”

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Tory chair Richard Holden has taken a rather different approach this morning, telling BBC Breakfast:

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\n

Their ambition is to block Conservatives winning seats and therefore put Keir Starmer into Downing Street. They’ve made it very clear, you’ve read out that statement from them, that’s what Reform UK want to do, they want to see Keir Starmer in Downing Street and not have a Conservative government.

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Reform aren’t challenging realistically for seats. This general elections is going to be a battle between the Conservatives and the Labour party. All Reform are going to do, as they’ve said themselves, is help put Keir Starmer and Labour into Downing Street.”

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If the right of the British politics and the centre and centre-right – that broad church which is the Conservative Party – doesn’t unite, then we will see a Labour victory.

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I believe we have every opportunity to win the next general election, I think we definitely can do it, but that means we have got to come together as a party, unite in the best interests of the country, deliver those things that we’ve promised, work together as a party to do that.

\n

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Speaking after the Wellingborough result was announced, Labour leader Keir Starmer said “by winning in these Tory strongholds, we can confidently say that Labour is back in the service of working people and we will work tirelessly to deliver for them.”

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He said the byelection results show the public “want change”.

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leader Keir Starmer is joined by musician Feargal Sharkey canvassing voters by phone for the Wellingborough and Kingswood byelections.”,”caption”:”Labour leader Keir Starmer is joined by musician Feargal Sharkey canvassing voters by phone for the Wellingborough and Kingswood byelections.”,”credit”:”Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA”}},{“_type”:”model.dotcomrendering.pageElements.TextBlockElement”,”html”:”

“Those who gave us their trust in Kingswood and Wellingborough, and those considering doing so, can be safe in the knowledge that we will spend every day working to get Britain’s future back.”

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Both wins will temper fears that a testing week for Labour has significantly threatened its electoral prospects and will further bolster predictions that the party stands to win a large majority at the next general election.

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Labour won Wellingborough from the Conservatives on a swing in the share of the vote of 28.5 percentage points. It was just short of the largest postwar byelection swing from Tory to Labour, which was 29.1 percentage points at the Dudley West byelection in December 1994.

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Labour won Kingswood on a swing in the share of the vote of 16.4 percentage points – some way above the 11.4-point swing the party needed to win the seat.

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Biggest Con-Lab by-election swing since 2019 and second biggest since 1945.

Thanks to @DanielJDunford for these excellent and speedily-produced graphs pic.twitter.com/xXS5UeUY0b

— Tamara Cohen (@tamcohen) February 16, 2024

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Prof John Curtice told the BBC that the Conservatives share of the vote was down by “nearly 38 points compared with the general election. That is the biggest ever drop that the Conservatives have suffered in a post-war by-election in a seat that they were trying to defend.”

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Ben Habib, the deputy co-leader of the Reform UK party has secured 13% of the vote in the Wellingborough byelection, marking the party’s best performance at a byelection in this parliament and since it rebranded from the Brexit party in 2021.

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Habib had said he hoped to emulate the party’s national polling level, which has been hovering around the 10% mark in recent months.

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Standing on an anti-net zero platform, the former London MEP for the Brexit party had said he had been encouraged by people waving and tooting support at him while he campaigned on the party’s battle bus around the constituency.

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Ben Habib leaves the Reform UK battlebus during the Wellingborough byelection campaign.”,”caption”:”Candidate Ben Habib leaves the Reform UK battlebus during the Wellingborough byelection campaign.”,”credit”:”Photograph: Martin Pope/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock”}},{“_type”:”model.dotcomrendering.pageElements.TextBlockElement”,”html”:”

While winning the constituency was seen as a two-horse race between the incumbent Tories and Labour’s Gen Kitchen, a key subtext of the campaign had been the extent to which disillusioned Conservative voters might defect to a party further to the right.

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In Kingswood, Reform candidate Rupert Lowe finished in third place with 10% of the vote, marking the party’s second-best performance in a byelection in this parliament, behind Wellingborough.

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Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg told reporters that if you add together the Reform UK and Conservative vote in Kingswood it is more than Labour’s. “If we can reunite the right in politics there’s a real opportunity for us,” he said.

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Rees-Mogg also highlighted the poor turnout of 37.1%. “If you’re a Tory and you stay at home, Rishi Sunak will still be prime minister in the morning,” he said. “I certainly thought this result would be worse. Bear in mind a lot of the postal votes would have been back before Labour’s problem with antisemitism was in the public.”

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Labour has claimed victory in the Kingswood and Wellingborough byelections, dealing a double blow to Rishi Sunak’s government.

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Labour candidate Gen Kitchen overturned a Tory majority of more than 18,000 to secure victory in Wellingborough, making it the first win for Labour in the seat since the 2001 general election.

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Kitchen won the seat with 13,844 votes, beating the Conservatives’ Helen Harrison who received 7,408 votes.

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party candidate Gen Kitchen celebrates with her family after being declared winner in the Wellingborough byelection.”,”caption”:”Labour party candidate Gen Kitchen celebrates with her family after being declared winner in the Wellingborough byelection.”,”credit”:”Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA”}},{“_type”:”model.dotcomrendering.pageElements.TextBlockElement”,”html”:”

The byelection in Wellingborough was triggered when voters in the constituency recalled the former Tory MP Peter Bone after he received a six-week suspension from the Commons when an inquiry found he had subjected a staff member to bullying and sexual misconduct.

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In the South Gloucestershire constituency of Kingswood, Labour overturned a majority of more than 11,000.

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Damien Egan, who resigned as the mayor of Lewisham in south-east London to contest the seat even though it is being abolished at the next general election, won by 11,1176 votes to 8,675 for his nearest rival, the Conservatives’ Sam Bromiley.

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Egan makes a speech after being declared the winner in the Kingswood byelection.”,”caption”:”Damien Egan makes a speech after being declared the winner in the Kingswood byelection.”,”credit”:”Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images”}},{“_type”:”model.dotcomrendering.pageElements.TextBlockElement”,”html”:”

The byelection was called after Chris Skidmore, a leading Tory voice on green issues, resigned in protest against the government’s dash for oil and gas.

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Over the last half century, Kingswood has swung between the Tories and Labour. Skidmore won the seat in 2010 and had built up an 11,220 majority by 2019.

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As the constituency is abolished at the next general election, Kingswood voters will be divided among four constituencies. Egan had previously been selected as the candidate for one of these, Bristol North East, a key Labour target.

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Good morning and welcome to the UK politics live blog as we look at reaction to two byelections with huge implications for the party leaderships of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer.

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Here are the headlines:

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Aside from reaction to the byelections, it should be a quiet day in UK politics. None of the Commons, Lords, Scottish parliament, Senedd or Stormont assembly are sitting today.

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Key events

Sky News is reporting that Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, who are co-chairs of one of the groupings of Tory backbenchers, have issued a statement saying Rishi Sunak must “change course” after the two byelection defeats on Thursday. It reads:

The results in yesterday’s byelections are unequivocal: Labour are winning because many of the people who backed us in 2019 are staying at home or voting Reform. Voters are not flocking to Labour.

They want a genuine alternative to the consensus politics of the last two decades – high taxes, low security, managed decline.

The government has made some positive steps to win back our lost voters. But all of this is plainly not enough. In 2019 the British people voted for change, and they haven’t seen it yet.

We have many good excuses – the disruptions and distractions of Brexit, Covid and the Ukraine war – but so far, we have not delivered on the promises we made at the last election. There is still time – but our party must change course.

The pair are part of “The New Conservatives” grouping, which – assuming you don’t have perfect recall of the seemingly myriad factions in the parliamentary party these days – my colleague Ben Quinn helpfully wrote about December. He said:

The New Conservatives are the newest and one of the most vocal groupings, created in May 2023 and include Lee Anderson, as well as Tories gaining more prominence such as Miriam Cates. Many are in marginal “red wall” seats.

Its MPs, who are thought to number about 25, are predominantly from the party’s 2019 intake. The group’s co-chair Danny Kruger has pressed the PM to deliver the Rwanda deportation plan by “unpicking” Britain from a range of international obligations.

“That’s what change means, that’s why change matters” has been a recurring refrain during Anas Sarwar’s speech to Scottish Labour, and he has finished his speech with a plea for people to vote Labour in Scotland to get rid of the Conservative government in Westminster.

He told delegates: “Our opponents don’t want change. They are the parties of the status quo – Scottish Labour is now the only party of change.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar during the Scottish Labour Party conference in Glasgow.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar during the Scottish Labour Party conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

Music nerds klaxon: Sia’s Unstoppable has been the opening and closing music for the speech. It’s a bop.

On energy policy, Anas Sarwar has said:

Let me be clear, oil and gas will play a role in the energy mix for decades to come – we will not turn off the taps – but we will also accelerate the transition to net zero.

We will upgrade the UK energy grid, invest in Scotland’s ports, capitalise on new technologies, and use Labour’s “British jobs bonus” to create quality supply chain jobs right here in Scotland.

We will make our country the winner in the race for the next generation of clean energy jobs and cheaper energy bills – not sell off our seabed on the cheap.

Anas Sarwar, the Labour leader in Scotland, says that the devolved government in Scotland has for twenty-five years mostly been a social policy government rather than an economic policy government. He describes the SNP as an “anti-business” party, and the Green party as “anti-growth”.

Anas Sarwar says that a Labour government for the UK would deliver “a race to the top” rather than a “race to the bottom”, and “the most transformative change in conditions for working people for a generation.”

He criticises the SNP for not making the best of devolution, saying:

A quarter of a century on from when our party created the Scottish parliament, our opponents have failed to make devolution work for the people of Scotland

Devolution was never meant to be about two governments fighting with each other. Devolution was always meant to be about Scottish solutions to Scottish problems. And two governments working together when in our national interest to actually deliver for Scotland.

Scottish Labour will be “responsible” with public money if elected to be the Scottish government in 2026, Anas Sarwar said.

He told Scottish Labour conference in Glasgow:

The SNP is being reckless with your money, and Scots shouldn’t be forced to pay the price for their incompetence. Because people work hard, pay their taxes, and expect government to be responsible with their money – it shouldn’t be too much to ask.

We will end the culture of financial mismanagement, we will end the secrecy, and we will open the books to public scrutiny, to restore people’s trust in our politics. We will be responsible with every penny of public money – that’s what change means and that’s why change matters.

Turning his attention back to the Conservatives and London, Sarwar said “I don’t support independence. And I don’t support a referendum. But I understand why people want to run a million miles from a Tory government”

He implored people to go “on this part of the journey” together to end the Conservative government in Westminster as the first step.

Anas Sarwar, the Labour leader in Scotland, has attacked the Conservative government in London for being in thrall to a “right-wing crankfest” and culture wars, and promised that a Labour government would end corruption and get back money lost during the pandemic and through cronyism.

He said:

The Tories are so mired in scandal and division and chaos, that their MPs are too busy trying to find a way to save their own skin rather than focusing on the huge challenges facing our country.

And while they seek to divide communities from each other, they also seek to divide us between haves and have-nots. They have crashed the economy – and put the UK into recession.

Imagine five more years of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel, Lee Anderson, Liz Truss, Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak. What an unbearable nightmare.

He has also been highly critical of the SNP, saying a culture of cover-up and secrecy has enveloped the Scottish government. He said that by voting Scottish Labour, Scotland would be at the heart of the next UK government.

Anas Sarwar has said statehood for Palestine is “not the gift of a neighbour”.

Here are the quotes from slightly earlier in the speech with have just appeared on PA:

The loss of innocent life in Israel and in Gaza is an absolute travesty.

On 7 October, we saw the largest loss of Jewish life in any single day since the Holocaust – it was unimaginable, unforgivable, and unjustifiable.

And we were right to show our solidarity with the Jewish people, and with the people of Israel in the face of that terror.

And as I have been clear, the collective punishment of 2.2 million innocent citizens of Gaza is not – never can be – a justifiable response to the horror inflicted by Hamas.

Describing himself as a “proud son of Glasgow”, Anas Sarwar, the Labour leader in Scotland has introduced his children, and said he is proud to be bringing up his children there. He has criticised the Scottish government for concentrating too much power in Holyrood.

He says that two years ago conference paid tribute to those in Ukraine, and says they do again. He says they also show solidarity with the people of Israel after the 7 October attack which he described as “unforgiveable”, going on to say the collective punishment of 2.2 million people in the Gaza Strip cannot be the right response. He says “the fighting must stop now”, calling for the end of fire going into and out of Gaza, the release of all hostages, the delivery of humanitarian aid, and for world leaders to work on an enduring path to a two state solution.

Sarwar says a collective failure of the international community to strive for peace has led to this situation because only when there is a safe and secure Israel side-by-side with a safe and secure Palestinian state will there be peace.

He says that people must separate Hamas from the Palestinian people, and separate the Israeli people from the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, and that the peaceful aspirations of the people of both Israel and Palestine are being poorly served by bad faith actors.

He says there must be a zero tolerance for antisemitism and a zero tolerance for Islamophobia, and that the Labour party will always stand shoulder-to-shoulder with both communities.

Anas Sarwar MSP, leader of the Scottish Labour party at the Scottish Labour Conference earlier.
Anas Sarwar MSP, leader of the Scottish Labour party at the Scottish Labour Conference earlier. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Anas Sarwar, the Labour leader in Scotland is opening his Scottish Labour conference speech by saying Scottish Labour is “back on the pitch and winning again” after the year they’ve had since their last conference.

Sarwar has described this year’s vote as “the most important general election for a generation”. He appealed to activists to remember the goosebumps they felt when Michael Shanks was elected, and talks of watching Labour MP after Labour MP being elected and the electoral map turning red and a Labour prime minister being elected.

“That’s the change we are fighting for, and the change our country so desperately needs,” he said.

Rutherglen and Hamilton West MP Michael Shanks is warming up for Anas Sarwar at the moment in Glasgow at the Scottish Labour conference. He is telling conference it is great that “Labour gain” is back in their vocabulary in Scotland, has made jibes at the SNP’s leadership election and iPad expenses scandal, and joked about Ian Murray, Labour’s only other MP in Scotland, having to now share his office in Westminster after Shanks was elected in October last year.

Labour’s leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, is about to address the Scottish Labour conference in Glasgow. You can watch it here.