Sir Keir Starmer is facing calls to “change direction” from Labour’s left wing after he became the first leader to see the party lose Hartlepool in 47 years – while Boris Johnson hailed a “very encouraging” set of election results so far.
Labour suffered a “shattering” defeat in Thursday’s by-election in Hartlepool as they lost out to the Conservatives by 6,940 votes.
The result boosts the prime minister’s majority in the House of Commons and also hands him another brick in Labour’s “red wall”.
The Hartlepool vote – as well as Thursday’s local elections, for which the results are continuing to be counted – were Sir Keir’s first major electoral test after just over a year as Labour leader.
And the by-election defeat focused scrutiny on his performance over the last 12 months, with critics from Labour’s left wing seizing on the result to urge Sir Keir to adapt his strategy.
Sir Keir was silent as he left his north London home on Friday morning, while Mr Johnson was able to describe “very encouraging” early election results after the Tories also made a handful of gains in English councils.
“I know that the results have been coming in since this morning and clearly a lot more to go and it’s early days,” the prime minister said on a visit to Coventry.
“But a very encouraging set of results so far and I think that’s really because we’ve been focussing as government on our priorities, the people’s priorities, and bouncing back from the pandemic as much as we can and getting through it.”
Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer, who will now become Hartlepool’s new MP, took more than half of all votes at the by-election as the Tories leapfrogged Labour from second place in the constituency at the 2019 general election.
As the Labour inquest into their Hartlepool defeat began, allies of Sir Keir’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, were quick to point out Labour had twice won the seat under Mr Corbyn’s leadership in recent years.
“Not possible to blame Jeremy Corbyn for this result,” Labour’s former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott posted on Twitter.
“Labour won the seat twice under his leadership. Keir Starmer must think again about his strategy.”
Another of Mr Corbyn’s former shadow cabinet ministers, Richard Burgon, said Labour was “going backwards in areas we need to be winning”.
“Labour’s leadership needs to urgently change direction,” he added.
“It should start by championing the popular policies in our recent manifestos – backed by a large majority of voters.”
Left-wing campaign group Momentum also accused Sir Keir of having taken Labour “backwards”, while Len McCluskey – the general secretary of the Unite trade union – told Sky News the Labour leader needed to “press the reset button”.
“He can go back to the very issues that he was elected to lead the Labour party on, which were radical policies,” Mr McCluskey said, although he dismissed suggestions Sir Keir should resign.
“He said he wanted to make the moral case for socialism and just at the moment people don’t know what his vision is, they don’t know what the vision of Labour is and therefore he needs to learn the lesson that we need to develop a radical alternative to the current government and the status quo.
“That’s the only way you can enthuse people to vote for you.”
Mr Corbyn’s longest political ally, Labour’s former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, said Labour’s local election results so far had been “pretty grim” while the Hartlepool result was “pretty devastating”.
He told Sky News: “The problem that the Labour Party had was that although for the last year nearly now the slogan has been ‘under new leadership’, we went into this election with a complete lack of programme or vision of the society we want to create.
“Our candidates were virtually going naked into the campaign without that policy to advocate, so there was no
motivation or incentive for people to vote for us.”
Mr McDonnell said Labour figures could not “keep on blaming” Mr Corbyn and claimed – since the former leader’s departure – there had been “a vacuum in terms of the development of ideas and visions and policies”.
But Labour former cabinet minister Lord Mandelson, a key architect of New Labour who was also MP for Hartlepool for 12 years, said that Mr Corbyn still “casts a long, dark shadow” over the party.
He told Sky News that Labour needed to “leave behind the fantasty policies and politics” of Mr Corbyn and to “rejoin the real world and the 21st century”.
Lord Mandelson said voters expected “very practical policies” from Labour “rather than existing in some sort of la la land where what we’re saying is implausible and what we’re proposing to do is simply unbelievable”.
“We’ve had too much of it in the past and we’ve really got just not to turn over a page, but open a whole new book for Labour going forward now,” he added.
Lord Mandelson had earlier described the last 11 general election results for Labour as “lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose”.
Lord Adonis, a former New Labour cabinet minister, called for Sir Keir to be replaced as party leader, despite having backed him for the leadership last year.
“I hoped that Keir, an effective ex-public prosecutor, might have sufficient leadership capacity and modernising social democratic vision to reshape Labour,” he wrote in The Times.
“Unfortunately, he turns out to be a transitional figure – a nice man and a good human rights lawyer, but without political skills or antennae at the highest level.”
But allies of Sir Keir pushed back at suggestions the party leader’s position could be imperilled.
Shadow communities and local government secretary Steve Reed told Sky News the Hartlepool defeat was “shattering” but insisted there was no need to ditch Sir Keir.
“For the first time in many years, actually, we have a leader that people can see as an alternative prime minister,” he said.
“What they don’t yet understand is, is Labour different from the Labour that they comprehensively rejected in December 2019? That job of work has not yet been done.”
Mr Reed added the COVID pandemic had “in part” hindered Sir Keir’s efforts to establish himself with voters.
The party’s shadow schools minister, Wes Streeting, also backed Sir Keir. He tweeted: “Our leadership has changed for the better, but the voters aren’t convinced that Labour has too.
“This is a huge and urgent task. Keir gets it. So must we.”