Keir Starmer faces a furious row with the Labour left as he “accelerates” the break from Jeremy Corbyn after a dismal election night.
Labour’s leader is plotting a more dramatic break from the party’s recent past following a humiliation at the ballot box.
The party also shedded seats in more than half of the first dozen councils to declare and lost control of Harlow to the Tories.
Hartlepool suffered almost a 16% swing from Labour to the Tories. And even in strongholds Labour lost support, including losing nine seats on its heartland council of Sunderland.
Shadow communities secretary Steve Reed admitted it was an “absolutely shattering” result as another brick in the party’s once impregnable “red wall” crumbled.
The vast majority of English results and the whole of the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments are yet to declare – but Labour made clear it would need to change harder and faster.
Mr Reed told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “Now we’ve started to make change, it clearly hasn’t gone fast enough or far enough and that’s what we’ll need to do next.
“We have an electoral mountain to climb – it feels to me like we’re still in the foothills.
“We’re going in the right direction but we have to now, at pace, go much, much, much faster.”
A Labour source added: “We’ve said all along the North East and the Midlands would be difficult.
“But, the message from voters is clear and we have heard it – Labour has not yet changed nearly enough for voters to place their trust in us.
“We understand that. We are listening. And we will now redouble our efforts.
“Labour must now accelerate the programme of change in our party, to win back the trust and faith of working people across Britain.
“People don’t want to hear excuses. Keir has said he will take responsibility for these results – and he will take responsibility for fixing it and changing the Labour Party for the better.”
The vow to break further from Jeremy Corbyn – despite losing council seats he’d held onto in a grim year in 2017 – angered the Labour left today, who have been critical of Sir Keir’s leadership.
Andrew Scattergood of Momentum, the group set up to support Jeremy Corbyn, said: “This result is a disaster. In 2017, we won over 50% of the vote in Hartlepool.”
He added: “A transformative socialist message has won in Hartlepool before, and it would have won again.
“Starmer’s strategy of isolating the left and replacing meaningful policy with empty buzzwords has comprehensively failed. If he doesn’t change direction, not only will he be out of a job – but the Labour Party may be out of Government forever.”
Polls and pundits had long predicted the defeat in Hartlepool – which came after Labour only held on to the seat in 2019 because the Brexit Party split the right-wing vote.
But the massive scale of the defeat shocked party insiders. In her victory speech, Ms Mortimer said: “Labour have taken the people of Hartlepool for granted for too long. I heard it on the doorstep time and time again. And they’ve had enough.”
Left-wing Labour MP Richard Burgon added: “Incredibly disappointing defeat in Hartlepool.
“We are going backwards in areas we need to be winning.
“Labour’s leadership needs to urgently change direction.
“It must take the fight to the Tories and offer a much clearer and more inspiring vision of what Labour stands for.
“It should start by championing the popular policies in our recent manifestos – which are backed by a large majority of voters.”
MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle appeared to mock the party’s attempts to change its image. He said: “Good to see valueless flag waving and suit wearing working so well… or not?”
But Shadow public health minister Alex Norris said Labour did not expect to recover from the 2019 general election loss within 18 months.
Asked whether leader Sir Keir Starmer would be to blame for a defeat in the Hartlepool by-election, Mr Norris told Sky News: “No, not in the slightest.”
“What Keir is going to be very clear about, what we are clear about as a Labour Party is that this is going to be a no-excuses election for us.
“Because you could say, ‘Well, on the one hand Covid and on the other hand the vaccination programme’, and then again on ‘Hartlepool has got very different local politics’.
“We are going to take our successes as we get them with humility and then we are going to own where we fall short, because we are in a long-term project of re-engaging with people.”
Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell – Jeremy Corbyn’s key ally – said he would not be calling on Sir Keir to quit but urged him to follow the former leader’s radical agenda.
He accused the new leader of sending candidates into the election “almost policy-less”.
Steve Reed, shadow secretary for communities and local government, said his party needs to listen to voters or the “defeats will keep coming”.
Speaking on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, he said: “We need to respond to this defeat in Hartlepool with great humility.
“If we do not listen to voters and hear what they’re telling us and change, we won’t deserve to win…
“The Labour Party spends far too much of its time litigating its own past and having battles about which part of Labour’s history you most prefer.
“The British people are focused on the future – that is where Labour needs to turn now.
“We need to address the concerns of the British public today and in the future, not in the past – if we don’t do that, these defeats will keep coming.”