Sir Keir Starmer’s hopes of leading a Labor revival have been dealt a blow after the Tories fought for victory in Hartlepool’s by-election.
In a startling result, the Tories took the seat – which had been held by Labor since its inception in 1974 – with a majority of 6,940.
Shadow Communities Secretary Steve Reed admitted it was an “absolutely shattering” result as another brick of the party’s once impregnable “red wall” collapsed.
It sparked a furious backlash from the Labor left – sidelined since Sir Keir became leader last year – who said the party must now change direction.
However, Mr Reed insisted they would double the more centrist approach taken over the past 12 months.
“What this shows is that although we have started to change since the cataclysm of the last general election, this change clearly did not go far enough to regain the confidence of the voters,” he said. at BBC Breakfast.
In a major boost for Boris Johnson, Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer secured 15,529 votes – more than half of the total cast – with Dr Paul Williams of Labor, behind 8,589.
And early results from council contests seemed to show voters were deserting Labor, with Tories taking over the councils of Redditch and Nuneaton and Bedworth in the Midlands, as well as Harlow in Essex and Northumberland.
In her victory speech, Ms Mortimer said the result – toppling a Labor majority of over 3,500 in the 2019 general election – was ‘truly historic’.
“Labor has taken the people of Hartlepool for granted for too long. I’ve heard that over and over again on the doorstep, ”she said.
On the Labor left, former shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott – a close ally of former leader Jeremy Corbyn – said it was a “crushing” defeat.
“Jeremy Corbyn cannot be blamed for this result. Labor has won the seat twice under his leadership. Keir Starmer needs to rethink his strategy, ”she tweeted.
Former shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said the party must “urgently change direction”.
“We are retreating in the areas where we need to win,” he tweeted.
“Union leaders urgently need to change direction. He should start by defending popular policies in our recent manifestos. “
The leftist group Momentum, which backed Mr Corbyn, said it was a “disaster”.
Co-Chair Andrew Scattergood said: “Starmer’s strategy of isolating the left and replacing meaningful politics with empty buzzwords has largely failed.
“If he doesn’t change direction, not only will he be out of a job – but the Labor Party may be out of government forever.”
The result is in part due to the fact that voters who backed the Brexit Party in 2019 – when it took a quarter of the vote – switched to the Tories.
But, worrying for Labor, he saw his share of the vote drop, underlining the scale of the task ahead of Sir Keir if he is to chart a path to No 10.
The party was bracing for tougher results as votes are counted on Friday and over the weekend in UK local elections.
Mr Reed denied that Sir Keir’s leadership had been a problem and said they would work “tirelessly” to restore confidence in the party.
“I am very convinced that we now have a leader who the country could consider an alternative prime minister – the problem is Labor itself,” he said.
“We have not yet changed the Labor Party enough to make people feel able to come out and trust it for their future and that of their children.”
The Conservatives, on the other hand, were jubilant, with Co-Chair Amanda Milling saying she was “delighted” that voters chose to trust the party.
“The work to repay that faith begins now, as we continue our agenda to move forward and rebuild better after the pandemic,” she said.
Following Hartlepool’s statement, attention will turn to the results elsewhere as the tally takes place across England, Scotland and Wales in the biggest test of political opinion outside of an election general.
The results of the Holyrood election, where the question of Scottish independence was a main feature of the campaign, will be released later on Friday and Saturday.
Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon’s push for a second independence referendum means the stakes are high in the competition.
The SNP is set to emerge again as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament after the election, but it wants to win an overall majority of MPs as it pushes for a second vote on the Union split – something which the polls, remains in the balance. .
The election results, which also include the Welsh Parliament, Police and Crime Commissioners, local authorities and English mayors, are expected to continue to filter until Monday as the count will take longer than normal in due to the coronavirus restrictions.
In Wales, Mark Drakeford hopes to maintain Labor’s grip on the Senedd – but he may find himself forced to forge a new coalition to remain prime minister.