SHADOW chancellor John McDonnell has issued a plea for Labour unity, as one of the party’s MPs branded its loss in the Copeland by-election a “disaster” which showed it was on track for a “catastrophic” general election defeat under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
The Conservatives dealt Mr Corbyn’s party a humiliating blow by snatching the Cumbrian seat, in an area which had been represented by Labour MPs since 1935.
Labour took some solace from holding on to Stoke-on-Trent Central, where its new MP, Gareth Snell, had faced a concerted challenge from Ukip leader Paul Nuttall.
Mr Nuttall was forced to declare he would be staying on as leader after failing to make significant inroads in a seat which voted 70% for Brexit in last year’s EU referendum and was seen as a key test of his mission to replace Labour as the natural party of the working class of the Midlands and northern England.
Victory for Tory Trudy Harrison in Copeland was the first time a governing party had gained a seat in a parliamentary by-election since 1982, and represents a historic achievement for a party which has been in office for seven years of unrelenting austerity.
Mr McDonnell told BBC1’s Breakfast he was “really disappointed” by the Copeland result, but insisted it was not a judgment on Mr Corbyn’s leadership. And he said voters in Stoke had done the nation a service by rejecting the “politics of dishonesty and division” represented by Ukip.
“This isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn,” said the shadow chancellor. “This is about the position of the Labour Party for the future. 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.
“These by-elections were difficult ones. We knew that. We’ve lost Copeland and we will learn lessons from that, but we’ve won Stoke and we’ve defeated something which was really dangerous for politics in this country. We’ve turned back the politics of dishonesty and division. The people of Stoke, by supporting Labour, have done us all a service in that.”
Mr McDonnell said the Copeland constituency - whose last Tory MP was born in 1879 - represented a “unique” challenge for Labour because of the importance of the nuclear industry to its local workforce. And he blamed “disinformation and misinformation” by Conservatives about Mr Corbyn’s stance on the nuclear issue for undermining voters’ support for Labour.
But Labour MP and long-time Corbyn critic John Woodcock told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “There are always excuses you can make. But we are in trouble as a party. This is a time when the country really needs an effective opposition and they need an alternative to the very damaging approach which the Conservative Government is taking on the issue of leaving the European Union. We are not providing that at the moment and we have to do better.”
Mr Woodcock, whose Barrow seat borders Copeland, accepted that Mr Corbyn’s grassroots support meant he would remain leader “unless he decides that he thinks it is right to go”, but he added: “Certainly the position we are in at the moment, we are not on course for victory. We are on course to a historic and catastrophic defeat and that will have very serious consequences for all of the communities that we represent.”
Ms Harrison polled 13,748 votes to 11,601 for Gillian Troughton, increasing the Conservative vote share by more than 8% as Labour’s dropped by nearly 5%.
Claiming the result as a “truly historic event”, she said her victory showed voters wanted “a party which is on the side of ordinary working people, which will respect the way we voted in the referendum and which will build a country which represents everyone”.
In Stoke, Mr Snell secured a comfortable win of 7,853 to his challenger’s 5,233, to be elected as the city’s new MP. Although Labour secured a 2,620 majority, its vote share fell by around 2%, while Ukip’s went up by the same amount.
Mr Corbyn said both constituencies had been “let down” by the political establishment.
But he admitted: “Our message was not enough to win through in Copeland.”
In a statement released in the early hours of the morning, the Labour leader said: “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.”
Mr Nuttall said Ukip was “not going anywhere” and insisted the party’s “time would come”.
“There’s a lot more to come from us,” he said.
“We are not going anywhere, I’m not going anywhere.”
The Ukip leader’s campaign was hit by controversy over his website’s untrue claim that he lost “close personal friends” in the Hillsborough tragedy, but he insisted the issue was not raised much on the doorstep.
Ukip deputy leader Peter Whittle denied the Stoke defeat sign-posts the end for the party as he branded the Labour campaign one of the “dirtiest” for some time.
Insisting Ukip was a “completely united party”, he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “When we win something in Ukip we are often called a flash in the pan. When we lose something - ‘Oh, well that’s the end of Ukip’ - nothing of the sort.
“Yes, last year we certainly did have a difficult time, but that’s in the past now.”
Tory party chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin told Good Morning Britain: “This is an amazing result for the Conservative Party. By-elections come and go, this one will be remembered for many, many years to come. It is a truly historic by-election.
“What we have seen today is something that we haven’t seen in British politics in the last 40 years.”
Mr McDonnell accepted that there were “mixed views” about Mr Corbyn, but insisted he would not step down as Labour leader.
Asked if Mr Corbyn had ever suggested he could give up the job to help Labour’s electoral chances, Mr McDonnell told Today: “He won’t do that. He has never said that.
“This is a fundamental commitment to our community and our country. He wants to serve this community and he will do it well once he becomes prime minister.”
The shadow chancellor criticised former prime minister Tony Blair and former business secretary Lord Mandelson for high-profile interventions in the days before the by-elections.
“We’ve got to unite,” said Mr McDonnell. “We can’t have a circumstance again where a week before the by-election a former leader of our party attacks the party itself. It’s not his fault, but I’m just saying advice - please don’t do that. And the same to Peter Mandelson, three days before a by-election he attacks the party.
“The central principle of how you win elections is that you have a united party, you do not divide the party. And now our members and overwhelming numbers in the parliamentary Labour Party are saying we need to unite in order to defeat these Conservatives and hold this Government to account.”