The deputy leader of UK’s Labour Party said Saturday he will step down once a new party chief is chosen, as an internal backlash against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn intensified following the party’s dire showing in Thursday’s general election.
And war appeared to be brewing between Corbyn’s hard-left faction in the party, which hopes to retain power in the wake of his departure, and moderates who had been sidelined in recent years, and who believe Labour must change direction if it hopes to once again appeal to a majority of British voters.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, a top ally of Corbyn and his de facto No. 2, said that once the Labour chief steps down and a new leader and shadow cabinet are appointed, “I won’t be part of that shadow cabinet, I’ve done my bit.”
Commenting on his party’s drubbing in the vote, McDonnell said: “We tried to bring the country together. It failed. We have to accept that, take it on the chin. We have to own that and then move on. We will all go now.”
McDonnell had admitted earlier in the week that the anti-Semitism scandal rocking the party could affect its prospects in the UK general elections. On Saturday he said a new leadership contest was likely to take place “in a couple of months.”
Corbyn on Thursday led his party to its worst election results since 1935, with many constituencies flipping to Conservatives for the first time in decades.
The defeat was seen as a result of Labour’s hesitant stance on Britain’s exit from the European Union, radical economic proposals seen as unrealistic, and Corbyn’s unpopular personality — with widespread accusations against him of empowering anti-Semitism within Labour and of himself being anti-Semitic and sympathizing with terrorists.
A survey on election day among voters who said they were not backing Labour found 43% cited the party leadership as the prime reason, followed by its Brexit stance (17%) and its economic policies (12%).
Corbyn has said he will step down next year once a new leadership contest is arranged, and Labour’s factions are now positioning themselves for the coming leadership battle.
McDonnell made clear he’d want Corbyn’s radical wing of the party to remain in control, saying the “new generation” of lawmakers he hoped would lead the party into the future included “Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner, Richard Burgon” — all Corbyn backers.
Meanwhile, several former Labour MPs who lost their seats in the election said Corbyn’s image and policies were clearly to blame for the party’s stinging defeat.
Outgoing MP Anna Turley told the Independent that throughout the Brexit debate, “instead of strong leadership and a clear position, we have had three years of U-turns, triangulation and dancing on pinheads. I have never been able to tell my constituents what Labour’s Brexit position truly was.”
She called the party’s showing “a failure on an epic scale.”
Turley also told BBC Radio 4: “You have to listen to the people, that’s the first thing that we have to do. And for me, when you’re getting four doors in a row of lifelong Labour voters saying: ‘I’m sorry Anna, I’m a lifelong Labour voter, I like what you’ve done, but I just can’t vote for that man to be prime minister,’ I’m afraid that’s a fundamental barrier that we just couldn’t get across.”
Outgoing MP Helen Goodman told the BBC: “The biggest factor was obviously the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader.” She said he “failed as a communicator, whatever his good personal qualities, and he undoubtedly has good personal qualities, he failed as a communicator.”
The former shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman said “You can’t run a political party that wants to be a party of government but only really appeals to about a third of the electorate and those are people that live in cities who are fairly well-off people.”
She added that if Labour ever wanted a chance at reelection it would need to learn the lessons of its most recent loss.
“The real question we have to ask ourselves now is do we want the Tories, do we want to give them another five years or another 15 years, because if we get this wrong now as a party, this could very well be the end of the Labour movement.”
Dame Margaret Hodge, who has been highly critical of Corbyn, directly calling him an anti-Semite, kept her seat in the election. She said on Saturday she had “moved from a depression and sorrow… to anger because it’s an election we should have won.
“Our fudge on Brexit was an issue. It was Jeremy’s own leadership that I met time and time on the doorstep, it was the economics we offered, they liked ideas but didn’t believe it, they see us as a nasty party and that comes from anti-Semitism,” added Hodge, who is Jewish.
Len McCluskey, head of the Unite trade union, who backed Corbyn all the way up to the election, turned on him Saturday, calling his manifesto an “incontinent rush of policies which appeared to offer everything to everyone immediately… strained voter credulity [while] obscuring the party’s sense of priorities.”
He also lashed Corbyn’s “failure to apologize for anti-Semitism in the party when pressed to do so, capping years of mishandling of this question.”
Traditional Labour voters in the north and central parts of England deserted the party in droves, allowing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives — for decades seen by Labour backers as the anti-union party of the London elite — to make unprecedented gains.
Johnson’s clarion call to “get Brexit done” proved more appealing than Corbyn’s two-pronged approach, which raised the prospect of yet more delay in the already slow Brexit process.
It will fall to a new leader to come up with a strategy that might bring the party back to power, or at least restore it as a credible opposition force. Corbyn said Friday he will not lead Labour into another general election, but resisted calls to step down immediately.
He later said an internal election to choose a new party leader to replace him will take place early next year and that he will step down then.
Britain’s chief rabbi had suggested anti-Semitism was a “new poison” within the party, which had been “sanctioned from the very top.” Corbyn failed to dampen the row during a television interview with the BBC, side-stepping repeated chances to apologize to Britain’s Jewish community.
He was also tetchy and evasive when challenged, such as in 2018 when questioned whether he had laid a wreath for Palestinian terrorists four years previously.
Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth, who lost her seat to the Conservatives, urged Corbyn to “announce he is resigning as leader of the Labour Party from his count today. He should have gone many, many, many months ago.”
Smeeth has headed the Jewish Labour Movement, which broke with Corbyn ahead of Thursday’s election, accusing him of anti-Semitism.
“We have become the racist party, the nasty party because of the actions of our leader and the lack of actions of our leader,” she said.
As bitter recriminations began about the failed campaign, former Labour Party Home Secretary Alan Johnson called Corbyn “a disaster on the doorstep. Everyone knew that he couldn’t lead the working class out of a paper bag.”
Ian Murray, a Labour legislator who won reelection in Scotland, said the party’s existence will be threatened if it doesn’t learn from the across-the-board defeats. “This party must listen, this party must respond, or this party will die,” he warned.
He said the party needs not just to replace Corbyn but also to change the world view he brought to the leadership.
“For the sake of the Labour movement, for the sake of the Labour Party, but more importantly for the sake of the country, not only does the person have to go but the policy and the ideology has to go as well,” he said.
Corbyn early Friday indicated his desire to preside over a period of “reflection” in which the party would regroup, a strategy that seems designed to make sure that “Corbynism” — his embrace of European-style socialism with an expanded role for the state — does not end once he is replaced.
He may face stiff opposition, however, from Labour figures who want the party to move back to the political center, as defined by more successful figures including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and even Ed Miliband, who was beaten by the Conservatives in 2015 but did not suffer a drubbing of this magnitude.
AP contributed to this report.