John McDonnell has insisted the Labour Party leadership is not in denial as he blamed disunity in the party for its humiliating defeat in the Copeland by-election.
The shadow chancellor said Labour would “learn lessons” from the result, but said it had not been a verdict on the party leader. “This isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn,” McDonnell said.
“We are in a difficult period over these last 20 months because of these leadership challenges and the divisions that have been sown within our party. The vast majority of our members want us now to unite and to campaign and hold the government to account, and that’s what we will do,” he told the BBC.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today progamme, McDonnell was asked if he was in “denial” about the the position the party found itself in. “Not at all,” he said. “Quite the reverse.”
And he blamed Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson for launching “attacks” on the party in the days leading up to the vote. “Please don’t do that,” he said.
Copeland has been held by the party since it was formed in 1983 but Tory Trudy Harrison snatched it by 2,147 votes in a historic victory. It is the first time a governing party has taken a seat from the opposition for decade. Harrison polled 13,748 votes to 11,601 for Labour’s Gillian Troughton.
John Woodcock, the Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, said Labour under Corbyn was “on course to a historic and catastrophic defeat”. He added: “We are in trouble as a party.”
Jamie Reed, the former Labour MP for Copeland whose decision to resign from parliament triggered the by-election also warned his former colleagues they were in trouble.
Labour backbencher David Winnick told the Press Assosation Corbyn should consider his position.
The party is faced with the problem of a leader who is simply not acceptable to a large number of people who would normally vote Labour That it is an obstacle and it would be wrong not to recognise that,” he said.
“It is now entirely up to Jeremy and those close to him to decide what is best in the interests not simply of the party but the people we are in politics to represent.”
Labour’s majority in the Copeland at the general election was just 2,564. But for an opposition to lose a seat to the party of power in a mid-term vote is extremely rare.
The last time it happened was the 1982 Merton, Mitcham and Morden by-election, although technically it was a Conservative gain from SDP as the sitting MP had defected from Labour to the SDP before the poll. Before that, the closest comparable case was Sunderland South in 1953.
Labour earlier held Stoke-on-Trent Central after seeing off a concerted challenge from Ukip leader Paul Nuttall.
But Corbyn admitted the party had failed to get its message through in Cumbria. “Labour’s victory in Stoke is a decisive rejection of Ukip’s politics of division and dishonesty,” he said.
“But our message was not enough to win through in Copeland. In both campaigns, Labour listened to thousands of voters on the doorstep. Both constituencies, like so many in Britain, have been let down by the political establishment.
“To win power to rebuild and transform Britain, Labour will go further to reconnect with voters and break with the failed political consensus.”
Patrick McLoughlin, the chairman of the Conservative Party, said the Tory victory in Copeland was not just a rejection of Corbyn but a pro-active “endorsement of the Conservative Party”.