Keir Starmer is facing immediate pressure from the left of Labour to change course after losing the Hartlepool byelection and a string of council seats to the Conservatives.
It came as Boris Johnson, visiting Hartlepool after the Conservatives took the seat for the first time in its 47-year history, said the result – which turned a Labour majority of 3,600 into a Tory win by nearly 7,000 votes, a 16-point swing – was “a mandate” for the government to press on.
“It’s a mandate for us to continue to deliver, not just for the people of Hartlepool and the fantastic people of the north-east, but for the whole of the country,” Johnson said, arguing that leaving the EU had allowed for decisions such as creating freeports, pursuing the UK’s Covid vaccine programme, and challenging the planned football European Super League.
All of those policies would in fact have been possible if the UK had still been a member of the EU.
While Labour had accepted the early results were likely to be among the worst of the series of votes across England, Scotland and Wales, the immediate message from Starmer and his allies was to push for a more rapid move away from the Jeremy Corbyn era.
Labour was “not yet changing fast enough” to win back the support of voters, the shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, said. Speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain, he said it had been “a very difficult and disappointing night”.
He said: “It tells us something we need to know. Although the Labour party is changing, we’re clearly not yet changing fast enough to win back the trust that has been lost over recent years.”
The party’s problems “run very, very deep”, Reed said, adding: “It was always going to take more than a year, given the breakdown in trust between the Labour party and very many people right across this country.”
Diane Abbott, who was shadow home secretary under Corbyn, tweeted: “Keir Starmer must think again about his strategy.” She added: “Crushing defeat for Labour in Hartlepool. Not possible to blame Jeremy Corbyn for this result. Labour won the seat twice under his leadership.”
Richard Burgon, the Leeds East MP who was shadow justice secretary under Corbyn, said Starmer’s team “needs to urgently change direction”. He tweeted: “It should start by championing the popular policies in our recent manifestos – backed by a large majority of voters.”
A spokesman for Momentum, the Corbyn-allied Labour group, said: “The leadership are reacting to this disaster by promising ‘more change’ – but over the last year we’ve gone backwards. It’s time to change direction, not double down on a failed strategy.”
Peter Mandelson, who held the Hartlepool seat for Labour from 1992 to 2004, said he was “fairly gutted” at the result but also felt “a mild fury that the last 10 years of what we have been doing in the Labour party nationally and locally has brought us to this result”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What I would say is this, and remind the party we have not won a general election in 16 years. We have lost the last four, with 2019 a catastrophe – the last 11 general elections read: lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose.
“We need, for once in this party, to learn the lessons of those victories, as well as those defeats, and I hope very much that when Keir and his colleagues in the shadow cabinet say this means that we have got to change direction that they actually mean it.”
Starmer was expected to speak to reporters later on Friday.
Early council results showed Labour losing a string of seats, among them 12 seats to the Conservatives in Dudley, giving the Tories control of the council. Of the first 14 seats declared for Nuneaton and Bedworth in Warwickshire, the Conservatives took 13, winning back control of the council from Labour.
In Redditch in Worcestershire, the first nine seats declared all went to the Conservatives, seven being taken from Labour, including Labour’s former council leader and deputy leader. The Conservatives also took control of Northumberland council from no overall control.
As well as more than 4,600 seats being contested across 143 English councils of various types, people in Scotland and Wales have voted for members of their devolved parliaments, with counting starting on Friday. While Labour is likely to remain the lead party in Wales, in Scotland the Scottish National party is hoping for a majority.
Also being chosen are 13 mayors, including in London, where Labour’s Sadiq Khan is widely expected to be re-elected. In other races, notably the West Midlands and Tees Valley, Conservative mayors are predicted to be re-elected. Also, 39 police and crime commissioners are being selected across England and Wales.