Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party was partly to blame for the loss of the Copeland byelection and the party has “no prospect” of winning the 2020 general election unless it changes its approach, the shadow Brexit secretaryhas said.
Keir Starmer told journalists he was not convinced by the reasons given by some in the shadow cabinet for losing the Copeland byelection, which included bad weather and recent media appearances by Peter Mandelson.
“I think the loss in Copeland was really serious. I don’t think some of the reasons put forward are compelling and I am very straightforward that if things don’t improve there is no prospect of us winning a general election,” he said.
Labour lost Copeland to the Conservatives, having held the Cumbrian seat since 1935. It is rare for oppositions to lose seats to the governing party.
Starmer said: “It is a very bad result for the Labour party and we need to be honest about that. A number of things came up, including the direction of travel of the Labour party, Labour’s ability to communicate and understand what people are saying to them and of course the leadership of the Labour party, and we all know that.”
Corbyn was asked about whether his leadership could be partly responsible for the defeat on Friday morning, and insisted it was not.
Starmer, the former director of prosecutions who is regarded by some MPs as a potential future leader despite only becoming an MP in 2015, said now was not the time for a third Labour leadership contest in two years, but the party had no prospect of winning the next general election if things did not improve.
“To come into parliament, and within 22 months to have had two leadership campaigns I think is pretty much unprecedented; I don’t think there’s an appetite for a third,” he said.
But he added: “I do think the Labour party needs to be much clearer about what it needs to do, to get from where it is now to getting into power, because 18 points behind in the polls, and losing seats like Copeland, are not the position that any party in opposition that wants to get into power can be in, so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
“The idea that the only thing that the Labour party needs to do, or that it’s all about the leadership, is actually wrong. I think it’s more fundamental than that. I think we need to be much clearer about what we stand for; we need to be much clearer about what the challenges of the 2020s, 2030s are.
“Simply having a leadership debate is not going to get us anywhere until we’ve answered those questions, and so I’m up for that debate about what is the direction of travel of the Labour party.”
Starmer, who resigned from the shadow cabinet last summer and backed Owen Smith’s leadership challenge before rejoining as shadow Brexit secretary, repeatedly stressed the importance for Labour of winning power.
“I totted up in the first year of being an MP, I voted 170 times, and on one occasion we defeated the government, and that captures what being in opposition is about, and I think for Labour in particular, there is the constant lesson we need to learn and relearn, which if you really want to change lives, you’ve got to win elections,” he said.
Asked about shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s claim in an article in Labour Briefing, published on Monday, that a “soft coup” is under way against Corbyn, Starmer said: “I’m trying to work out what a soft coup is; whether you gently roll someone over, or whether you use some other mechanism. I don’t know anything about a soft coup or any other coup, and those who are suggesting that there is one probably need to explain what they mean.”
Starmer said he respected the result of the leadership election, and stood by his decision to rejoin the shadow cabinet, when asked whether he would welcome a voluntary decision by Corbyn to step down. But he added: “What is important after Copeland and Stoke is that everybody reflects honestly on where that leaves the Labour party and everybody asks themselves, did I need to do everything I could have done, and does anything need to change?
“You’re not going to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s answer, whichever part of the Labour party you come from.”
Starmer hinted that he was starting to think about the kind of platform Labour might need to be a serious contender for government at the next general election.
“We need to understand how and when the Labour party wins, and it wins and it wins big, rarely. It did it in 45; it did it in the 60s; and it did it in 1997. And each time it did it by glimpsing the future, understanding the challenges ahead, not the challenges behind, and making the government look like yesterday’s goods.”