A senior member of Jeremy Corbyn’s top team has urged him to listen to the public and not shy away from “painful conclusions” of the “devastating” Copeland by-election result.
Shadow Cabinet minister Baroness Smith told HuffPost UK that the Labour leader will have to “think long and hard” about the way the Tories toppled the party in its northern heartland.
Baroness Smith, the Shadow leader of the House of Lords and a former Labour MP, said that Corbyn had to take more care to reflect official party policy on nuclear power and weapons in a bid to reconnect with voters.
Conservative Trudy Harrison scored a spectacular victory in Copeland on Friday morning, taking the seat from Labour for first time since the 1930s, with a majority of 2,147.
Although Labour held on in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, seeing off UKIP leader Paul Nuttall, it saw its vote share cut while the Tories increased theirs.
Baroness Smith also ridiculed claims by some Labour frontbenchers who tried to play down the significance of the Copeland result, and rejected suggestions that Tony Blair had undermined the party’s performance with critical remarks about Corbyn.
In a wider interview with HuffPost UK, to be published in full this weekend, she gave her first reaction to the Copeland result.
“I think it’s been devastating. I’m extremely disappointed. We had a great candidate we had a really good, organised Labour party team up there. Andrew Gwynne, who was our MP in the campaign, was in Oldham as well when we won. So I think we were pretty upset to lose that seat,” she said.
“Stoke, where everyone thought that was the one where the Brexit issue would make it more difficult for us, we’ve held that seat. And we will have Gareth Snell coming to Parliament. But yes we are very, very disappointed about Copeland.”
Asked what the wider lessons should be, Baroness Smith said: “To be honest, I think we’ve got to reflect on this. We mustn’t bury our head in the sand, this is a very bad election result for us.
“I think all of us, across the Shadow Cabinet, individually and collectively, have got to look long and hard at what people in Copeland have told us.”
Asked if there was a wider disconnect between Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s core voters in some of the party’s heartlands, she replied: “That’s one of the things we have to examine quite carefully.
“Was this people didn’t want to hear what Jeremy wanted to say to them? Was that the reason? Or are there wider, more deeper reasons? I don’t think we should rush to conclusions on that.
“But neither, as I say, must we bury our heads in the sand and not be very honest, even if it’s painful, what conclusions we draw.”
The Cumbria seat relies heavily on the nuclear industry for skilled jobs and Labour canvassers picked up early in the campaign worries about Corbyn’s own equivocal stance on plans for a new power plant in the constituency.
Labour tried to exploit a threatened downgrade of a local hospital maternity unit, including warnings that ‘babies will die’ as a result of the plans, but its tactics failed.
“It’s clear policy was an issue, that nuclear policy was an issue,” Baroness Smith said.
“We have to listen to that because clearly it wasn’t a strong enough message they were getting from the Labour party about our policy on nuclear energy.”
Asked if Tony Blair’s speech on Brexit had been a hindrance to the party in the by-elections, she replied: “It doesn’t appear to have been does it? I think people thought it would. And there was lots of criticism of him when he made that comment, me included.
“But you have to say in the constituency that we thought would be the most difficult [Stoke Central], where people thought Tony’s intervention would be harmful, it didn’t make the impact that some people though it would.”
Labour has consistently been 16 points behind the Tories in recent opinion polls, as Theresa May basks in a continued honeymoon period as Prime Minister and driver of Brexit.
After Corbyn won two landslide leadership election victories, few Labour MPs believe another challenge is viable, but many are now hoping he will realise his failure to connect with voters is leading the party to another general election defeat.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell claimed that the nuclear issue was ‘a unique’ factor, and that Blair’s intervention and the failed ‘coup’ attempt by Labour MPs last year were partly to blame.
Corbyn-supporting MP Cat Smith told ITV: “To be 15-18 points behind in the polls and to push the Tories within 2000 votes is an incredible achievement.”
And new Labour election campaigns co-ordinator Ian Lavery said Corbyn is “one of the most popular politicians in the country”.
But when asked how Corbyn should personally react to Copeland, Baroness Smith said: “I think Jeremy will be very disappointed at the election result.
“Whatever spin some people want to say, [and] I think some of the overnight comments perhaps were made without reflection, it wasn’t a good result.
“I can’t believe for one moment he draws any comfort from that result and he will be clearly be thinking long and hard about it.”
Labour could reconnect with voters if it stressed its own policies backing Trident and nuclear power, rather than Corbyn’s personal views on both, she suggested.
“The leader has to reflect official Labour party policy. That’s quite clear, that must always been the case.
“We’ve always said the Labour party is not just one person, whoever the leader has been. The Labour party has always been a broad coalition. And on nuclear, there’s always been differently held views. Yet the leader has to reflect the views of the party as a whole.”
Smith won the key marginal seat of Basildon in Essex in 1997 as part of Tony Blair’s general election landslide. She held on to the seat until 2010, when the constituency was abolished by boundary changes.
“I represented a southern New Town…it’s this issue about ‘listen to me..are you hearing what I’m saying?’
“That doesn’t mean you always have to reflect people’s views. You can challenge people’s views. I was very much in a Remain campaigner, my former constituency voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.
“That doesn’t mean you don’t challenge those views and argue with them, people can respect that. They want you to be authentic, honest and decent with them – and take on board the concerns they have. That’s sometimes hard.
“I don’t think people argue with you if you views are fundamentally held for the right reasons.”