A Labour MP has accused Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner of spending too much time giving the party’s left-wingers “a kicking” than fighting Boris Johnson’s government in the wake of its by-election humiliation in Hartlepool.
Backbencher Richard Burgon, a former deputy leadership contender who is now one of the leading voices in the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, said the strategy of leader Starmer and deputy leader Rayner “hasn’t worked” since they were elected 13 months ago.
In Starmer’s first electoral test on Thursday, he saw Labour lose the Hartlepool seat to the Conservatives for the first time ever.
The result is made even more calamitous by the fact sitting governments – particularly ones that have been in power for 11 years – rarely gain seats in by-elections.
As the fallout continued on Friday, Burgon told Yahoo News UK his former shadow cabinet colleagues need to “think again” about their approach.
“Keir and Angela have shown a greater zeal in giving the left in the party a kicking than they have done in taking the fight to the Tories," he said.
Since Starmer was elected in April last year, he has sought to distance himself from predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, and in July declared the party was "under new management”.
He also pledged “constructive opposition” to Boris Johnson during the coronavirus pandemic.
Burgon said this went on too long: “The job of the opposition is to oppose. Keir has spent too much of the last year giving them a free pass despite the fact they have handled this pandemic disastrously in terms of deaths and the economic downturn.”
Labour's vote share in Hartlepool was 53% in the 2017 general election, 38% in 2019 and 29% in Thursday's by-election.
Watch: Voters in Hartlepool react to Tory by-election win
Burgon said: "It seems to me the Labour leadership has sadly failed to inspire Labour voters to turn out [in Hartlepool], failed to offer them a clear set of practical policies they can support.
"To go from 53% to 29% shows the dire situation."
Starmer has also been accused of lacking policy ideas, and Burgon said he should stop being "embarrassed" about the "popular policies" offered in the Corbyn manifestos of 2017 and 2019.
Some 12.9m people voted for Labour in 2017 (compared to 13.6m for the Conservatives), but this dropped to 10.3m in 2019 (14m for the Conservatives) in the party's worst general election performance since 1935.
Burgon, who said Corbyn policies such as free broadband and public ownership of Royal Mail were backed by voters in Hartlepool, added: "He shouldn’t be embarrassed by popular policies and Keir needs to define himself by what he is, not what he isn’t.
"He seems to have spent the last year fixated on telling people he’s not Jeremy Corbyn. We know he’s not Jeremy Corbyn and actually we’ve gone backwards from even 2019 with this result in Hartlepool."
Asked how long it could be before a leadership challenge from the party's left-wing MPs is on the cards, Burgon twice refused to answer.
He only said: "It can’t go on like this. Keir needs to own this result... and set out a much clearer vision of what Labour stands for."
Earlier on Friday, Peter Mandelson, a former Hartlepool MP himself, suggested Starmer needs to return the party to the “New Labour” approach which saw Tony Blair win three general elections between 1997 and 2005.
Lord Mandelson, who was a cabinet minister under Blair, pointed out he is the only Labour leader to have won an election in the past 47 years.
And listing Labour’s performances in the past 11 general elections, he emphasised the point by saying on BBC Radio 4's Today programme: “Lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose.”
Starmer, commenting on Friday afternoon on the Hartlepool result as well as defeats in local elections, admitted "we’ve not made a strong enough case to the country".
He added: "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."
Watch: Labour took Hartlepool for granted, says Tory chair