Sir Keir Starmer has pledged to do “whatever is necessary” to rebuild trust in Labour following a devastating defeat in the Hartlepool by-election.
After seeing another pillar in its once impregnable “red wall” fall to Boris Johnson’s Tories, the Labour leader told his party to “stop quarrelling among ourselves” and address the needs of the country.
In a stunning victory, the Conservatives overturned a majority of 3,500 at the general election to take the seat – which had been Labour-held since it was formed in 1974 – with a majority of 6,940.
The bruising result – described as “absolutely shattering” by one shadow cabinet minister – prompted calls from across the party for a change of direction.
But with Labour braced for further damaging losses in the English council elections, Sir Keir said he was determined to address the problems.
“I’m bitterly disappointed in the result and I take full responsibility for the results – and I will take full responsibility for fixing this,” he said.
“We have changed as a party but we haven’t set out a strong enough case to the country.
“Very often we have been talking to ourselves instead of to the country and we have lost the trust of working people, particularly in places like Hartlepool.
“I intend to do whatever is necessary to fix that.”
A jubilant Prime Minister travelled to Hartlepool to hail the result as support for his Government’s “levelling up agenda”.
“It’s a mandate for us to continue to deliver, not just for the people of Hartlepool and the fantastic people of the north east, but for the whole of the country,” Mr Johnson said.
The Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer gained 15,529 votes – more than half the total cast – with Labour’s Paul Williams trailing on 8,589.
There was further success for the Tories in the North East with Ben Houchen winning a second term as Tees Valley mayor in a landslide, picking up 73% of the vote.
Along with Hartlepool, that means two-thirds of the “hat trick” of results targeted by the Tories have been achieved – with the focus now on Andy Street remaining as West Midlands mayor.
With the Conservatives continuing to make gains as council results poured in from across England, the Prime Minister said it looked “very encouraging”.
For Labour, there was renewed turmoil and recriminations, re-opening the wounds of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Sir Keir repeatedly refused to be drawn on reports he was planning a shadow cabinet reshuffle, with shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds rumoured to be among the casualties.
However, there were calls from both the left and the right of the party for an urgent change of direction if they were to stand any chance of regaining power at the next general election.
Mr Corbyn suggested Labour had gone into the elections offering nothing to voters.
Asked if Sir Keir should quit, former Labour leader Mr Corbyn told Channel 4 News: “It’s up to him what he decides to do.
“But the important thing is that this party represents a real, radical alternative to inspire people.
“Offering nothing, offering insipid support for the Government, causes people either to vote for somebody else or simply to stay home and disappear.”
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the party had gone into the by-election “almost policy-less” and called for a return to a “real grassroots campaign”.
But there was criticism too from the right, including the Blairite former cabinet minister Lord Adonis who suggested Sir Keir was now a “transitional” figure rather than the person to put the party back on course for success.
Sir Keir said that he would set out details of his plan to “reconnect ” the party with voters over the “next few days”.
“This goes way beyond a reshuffle or personalities,” he said.
“It’s about focusing the Labour Party on the country and making sure that we close the gap between the Labour Party and working people.”
With results in from 69 of 143 English councils being contested, the Tories had a net gain of seven authorities and an extra 166 seats, while Labour had lost control of four councils and 150 seats.
But while Mr Johnson may rejoice in his party’s performance in England, the situation in Scotland could leave him with a major political headache.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said she was “extremely confident” the party was heading for a “historic” fourth term in power – and with it the possibility of a constitutional showdown over another independence referendum.
She said it was “not impossible” that the SNP could win an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament election, as the party made gains from its rivals in key seats.
If that happened “when the time is right” she would press ahead with plans for an independence referendum – effectively daring Mr Johnson to block it in the courts.
“If this was in almost any other democracy in the world it would be an absurd discussion,” she told Channel 4 News.
“If people in Scotland vote for a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, no politician has got the right to stand in the way of that.”
Results were also coming in from Wales, where Labour believes its support is holding up to ensure Mark Drakeford continues as First Minister.
The party took the scalp of former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood in the Rhondda, but lost the Vale of Clwyd to the Tories.