Labour warned over 'bunker mentality' after Sleaford by-election drubbing
A veteran Labour MP has warned the party is heading for "electoral disaster" unless its leadership shakes off its "bunker mentality" in the wake of its fourth place in the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election.
Jeremy Corbyn's party suffered a 7% slump in its vote to finish behind Ukip and the Liberal Democrats in a constituency where it came second in last year's general election.
As expected, the Conservatives held the seat by a comfortable majority, seeing off a challenge from Ukip, who celebrated second place but saw their share of the vote drop by 2.2% to 13.5%.
New MP Caroline Johnson vowed to bolster Prime Minister Theresa May's position in Parliament to make sure Brexit happens after taking 53.5% of the vote in an area which backed the Leave cause in the European Union referendum.
The Lib Dems claimed they were "back as an electoral force" after seeing their vote swell by more than five percentage points to 11% - narrowly ahead of Labour on 10.2% - a week after their sensational victory in Richmond Park.
Labour's David Winnick pointed the finger of blame at the party's leadership for the "appalling" showing in the Lincolnshire seat.
"Even if one takes into account that the by-election turnout was considerably lower than in the general election, it was an appalling result for Labour," the Walsall North MP told the Press Association.
"If we were to continue in this way then the indications are 2020 will be an electoral disaster and the possibility of a Labour government very remote indeed.
"The sort of bunker mentality that seems to exist at the moment at the highest levels of the party needs to recognise what is happening in the outside world."
But senior Labour MP Vernon Coaker - who quit Mr Corbyn's shadow cabinet earlier this year - said the focus on Brexit had damaged Labour candidate Jim Clarke's chances.
"Clearly for us, this was not the result we might have hoped for," said Mr Coaker. "The challenge for us was because of Brexit. Everything was about Brexit. The messages about the A&E, the NHS, the messages about infrastructure, all of that got lost to an extent in the swirl around Brexit."
In her acceptance speech, Dr Johnson, who won 17,570 votes, said: "I look forward to strengthening the Government's majority in Parliament so Theresa May, our Prime Minister, can get on with the job of triggering Article 50, leaving the European Union and building a country and economy that works for everyone."
Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, who was at the count, said Victoria Ayling's second place with 4,426 votes was a "great result" for the party, which he admitted had been " a bit of a shambles" over the summer.
"I think it's a really good way to get my leadership off the ground," said Mr Nuttall. "This is a small step on a long road."
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said the "strong result" by his party's Ross Pepper came off the back of last week's by-election success in Richmond Park, where Sarah Olney ousted former Tory Zac Goldsmith.
"It shows that the Liberal Democrats are back as an electoral force, now in areas that voted Leave as well as Remain and in a seat that has not elected a Lib Dem MP in modern times," he said.
Former chancellor George Osborne said: "The disintegration of the Labour Party is not good for democracy. Oppositions are meant to try to win by-elections, not slip from second to fourth."
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said Labour should have done better.
He told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "I think it's a hugely disappointing result for the Labour Party. I think the Labour Party should have done better. By-elections do have different patterns of voting than what normally happens at a general election. I think we do have to confront Ukip. I think we do have to take the threat from Ukip very seriously."
Deputy Ukip leader Peter Whittle told the BBC: "I think the Labour Party has almost no message on Brexit and this is why, increasingly, it is traditional Labour voters who are coming over to us.
"And, I think we have the opportunity, particularly with our new leader Paul Nuttall, to transform British politics again, having done it once with the referendum - now we are in Act Two for our party."