LONDON (Reuters) – Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faced calls to quit on Friday, after equivocation over Brexit and his limited personal appeal contributed to a collapse in traditional strongholds and what looks like his party’s worst election defeat in 84 years.
An exit poll and early results showed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party were set for a resounding victory in Britain’s election, allowing him to deliver Brexit on Jan. 31.
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.
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.
Labour candidate Gareth Snell said he expected to lose his parliamentary seat in Stoke-on-Trent, a city once regarded as a Labour stronghold, and made clear that he wanted Corbyn to take responsibility for the party’s poor performance.
Asked if it was time for Corbyn and his finance chief John McDonnell to go, Snell replied: “Yes”.
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, the 70-year-old 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.
Early results showed that Labour’s heartlands in former industrial areas of central and northern England – areas that typically voted for Brexit – had swung towards Johnson’s Conservatives.
Stoke was hard-hit by 1980s closures of heavy industry and coal mines but remains renowned for its porcelain, bone china and ceramics. Labour has represented Snell’s Stoke-on-Trent Central seat since the constituency was created in 1950.
Snell said a combination of the perception that Labour was blocking Britain’s exit from the European Union, and some voters’ dislike of Corbyn meant he expected defeat.
“It’s a lovely and toxic combination of the fact that the message in Stoke-on-Trent that’s been heard by the voters is that the Labour Party tried to stop Brexit,” Snell told the BBC.
“It would be remiss of me not to mention that Jeremy Corbyn has come up on the doorstep: some people really like him, some people really dislike him, and that has been a turn off.”
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