Jeremy Corbyn faced claims he was out of touch with Labour voters’ ‘values’ after the local elections saw the party stunned by losses in both marginal seats and its heartlands.
The Labour leader came under fire as the Tories all but wiped out UKIP and scored historic victories over Labour in the north East, Scotland and West Midlands.
Just five weeks before the general election, Theresa May looked on course for a big Tory majority at Westminster – though not perhaps a landslide - as her party romped home in a string of local votes, racking up 400 extra seats as Labour lost 275 and UKIP 100.
The biggest losses for Corbyn’s party came in Teesside, where the traditionally solid Labour region’s new mayoralty was won by the Conservatives.
And in the crunch contest for the West Midlands Metro Mayoralty, the Tory candidate Andy Street - and former boss of John Lewis - won by just 4,000 votes out of an electorate of half a million.
Defeated West Midlands Labour candidate Sion Simon blamed the result on the party leadership’s failure to connect with the “values” of its core voters in areas like Birmingham, West Bromwich, Walsall and Wolverhampton.
Although he refused to name Corbyn directly, Simon made clear he meant the Labour leader and his team had let down its traditional supporters on key issues.
In his concession speech, he said:
“We can’t duck the reality of what we heard in the places we won on the streets of cities and towns like Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton and Sandwell.
“Traditional working class voters, who we were born to serve, quite simply want to hear a clearer, stronger message about traditional values like patriotism, hard work and a defence of decency, law and order.”
On the BBC later, he added: “They don’t have confidence that we share their core values.”Our regional campaign was overshadowed by national political issues.
“We should have been talking about transport and housing…but we ended up talking about defence, immigration and Brexit.
“And on those issues Labour voters in Labour areas were saying ‘we don’t feel confident you are strong enough in our traditional values’. That’s the lesson we need to learn and we need to learn it soon.”
Former Chancellor George Osborne couldn’t resist a reference to John Lewis’s famous ‘never knowingly understold’ catchphrase as he tweeted.
Corbyn has come under intense attack from both the Tories and his own MPs in recent months over his support for nuclear disarmament, remarks about ‘shoot to kill’ policies and an incident where he failed to sing the national anthem.
The party’s line on whether Brexit would bring migration controls has been muddied, with the leader refusing to rule out EU ‘freedom of movement’, but his Shadow Brexit Secretary saying immigration would have to be curbed.
Corbyn admitted there had been “some disappointing results” but preferred to point to the party’s wins in the Metro Mayoral contests in Liverpool and Manchester, where former MPs Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham won with more than half of the vote.
Appearing alongside Rotheram on a trip to Liverpool, the Labour leader said: “The whole country can learn a lesson from Steve and from Merseyside. He’s shown determination and achieved a fantastic result”.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell also disputed Simon’s verdict about a failure to connect with voters’ “values”. “That doesn’t seem to be reflected elsewhere,” he said.
But another defeated Labour council candidate, Phil Johnson - who is Labour’s general election candidate for Nuneaton- told the BBC: “People have been saying to us that Jeremy Corbyn’s style has been putting them off voting Labour.”
The Tories gained control in county councils in Derbyshire and Lancashire, which are packed with key marginal seats need to win a general election. Labour lost control of Glasgow to the SNP as well as Bridgend and Blaenau Gwent to independents.
The BBC said that the projected national vote share from the elections was 38% for the Tories to Labour’s 27%, the Lib Dems’ 18% and UKIP’s 5%.
Polling expert John Curtice said that if the council results were reflected at next month’s general election, May would win a bigger majority - but not perhaps the landslide she was hoping for.
The 11-point Tory lead over Labour in the projected national share is smaller than their 17% average lead in recent opinion polls, he said.
Theresa May has said she is “taking nothing for granted” in 8 June’s general election because there is “too much at stake” in her bid to get a stronger mandate to conduct Brexit talks with the EU.
The Conservatives scored a victory in Tees Valley, a traditional Labour stronghold, where their candidate Ben Houchen was elected the area’s first metro mayor. He hailed it as a “political earthquake”.