LONDON – Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Friday he would step down as his party faced its worst electoral defeat in 84 years, but he did not set a date for his departure and added he would remain in charge during a period of reflection.
An exit poll and early results showed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party was set for a resounding victory in Britain’s election, allowing him to deliver Brexit on Jan. 31. Critics blamed a collapse in support in traditional Labour strongholds on Corbyn’s equivocation over Brexit, and said many voters had cited their dislike for him on doorsteps across the country.
That leaves Labour, a 100-year-old party born out of the trade union movement, wrestling with what went wrong and what to do about it.
“I will not lead the party in any future general election campaign,” Corbyn said in his north London constituency, where he comfortably held his seat. The 70-year-old described the results as “very disappointing.”
“I will discuss with our party and ensure there is now a process of reflection on this result and the policies that the party will take going forward.”
Asked whether she thought she would retain her seat in the northern city of Stoke-on-Trent, a Labour bastion, the party’s candidate Ruth Smeeth bluntly replied, “I’ve definitely lost.” She placed the blame firmly on Corbyn’s shoulders: “He should have gone many, many, many months ago.”
The exit poll showed voters had gone with Johnson’s “get Brexit done” promise and pro-market philosophy and rejected left-wing veteran Corbyn, who had promised a second Brexit referendum and a radical expansion of the state.
Corbyn, an avowed socialist who took control of the party after a bruising 2015 election defeat, has shifted Labour sharply away from the center ground that underpinned three Labour majority governments led by Tony Blair.
During four years in charge, he has built an ultra-loyal support base, pushing centrist members to the fringes and creating an ideological schism that critics say has alienated many of its traditional working-class voters.
An ardent pro-Palestinian activist, he has also been accused of failing to address accusations of anti-Semitism among his supporters.
“Corbyn was a disaster on the doorstep. Everyone knew he couldn’t lead the working class out of a paper bag,” said Alan Johnson, who served as a senior minister under Blair.
Underlining the likely looming battle for the future of the party, Corbyn loyalist Richard Burgon said the party should not turn back toward the center ground.
“We need to fight back, not triangulate,” Burgon, Corbyn’s justice spokesman, said.
“People on the doorstep weren’t complaining about our policies, and we wouldn’t have had the policies … if it weren’t for Jeremy’s leadership,” he said, blaming the focus on Brexit and negative coverage of Corbyn.
But early results showed that Labour’s heartlands in former industrial areas of central and northern England — areas that typically voted for Brexit — had swung toward Johnson’s Conservatives.
Labour lost seats it has held for decades, like Blyth Valley in northern England, which had been Labour since it was formed in 1950, and Wrexham, the Welsh seat that had voted Labour each election since 1935.
Corbyn did not address the exit polls as he arrived to hear the results in his own north London electoral seat, but weary candidates taking in the scale of their defeat made it clear that he would have to face it eventually.
“I am devastated, I don’t know how you could have any other reaction other than being utterly heartbroken,” Labour’s Jess Phillips said. “This is not a time for easy answers as much as I wish it was.”
The main candidates currently tipped to replace Corbyn are:
Keir Starmer: The narrow favorite in the race would represent a shift back toward center ground for the party after its move to the left under the veteran socialist Corbyn.
Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions in England and Wales, became an MP in 2015 and has been shadow Brexit minister for three years, using his legal expertise to hold the government to account over its plans.
Starmer, 57, is popular among the anti-Brexit and centrist factions of his party, but is less liked among those new members attracted to the party by Corbyn’s radicalism. He would likely face a highly charged ideological battle to win over enough members.
Rebecca Long-Bailey: Starmer’s biggest threat appears to be a 40-year-old Corbyn loyalist long seen as his natural successor.
The daughter of a docker from Manchester, Long-Bailey has the credentials to win back disaffected voters in the party’s traditional working-class heartlands while maintaining the backing of Corbyn’s supporters.
“If he could step aside and he knew that he’d be handing over to a Rebecca Long-Bailey or to somebody else that would be kind of a continuity ‘Corbynite,’ then I think he probably might,” University of Nottingham professor Steven Fielding said. She has also deputized for Corbyn at the weekly prime minister’s questions in Parliament.
But given the waning star of the veteran leftist, it is unclear how much influence Corbyn will have over the process. Much could depend on whether the trade unions that prop up the party decide they want it to move toward the center in a bid to beat the Tories after such a crushing defeat.
Angela Rayner: The combative 39-year-old served in Corbyn’s top team for three years after being elected in 2015 and describes herself as being part of Labour’s “soft-left” wing. She left school at 16, pregnant and with no qualifications, but worked her way up to become a senior trade union official.
“People underestimate me,” Rayner told the Guardian in 2012. “I’m a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time.”
Emily Thornberry: Corbyn’s foreign affairs spokeswoman for two years, the outspoken MP has previously courted controversy but could be a popular choice among the party’s ‘remain’ majority, having been a vocal proponent of stopping Brexit.
Thornberry, 59, first appeared on the national stage in 2014 after tweeting a photograph of a house in a working-class constituency adorned with three English flags. Then-party leader Ed Miliband said the apparently mocking tweet showed a “lack of respect.” The incident, over which she quit, could hinder her efforts to win support.
Jess Phillips: The 38-year-old was elected to Parliament in 2015 after a career working with refugees and victims of domestic violence. She soon became one of its most recognizable voices, with passionate and energetic performances delivered in her distinctive West Midlands accent.
She is no friend of Corbyn, having once joked she would “stab him in the front,” and would be an outsider to replace him.
But she is a canny media operator, being one of the party’s most visible MPs on Twitter and earning glowing profiles in newspapers from across the political spectrum.