LONDON (AP) — Britain's governing Conservative Party dealt a humiliating blow Friday to the opposition Labour Party and its struggling leader Jeremy Corbyn by winning a parliamentary seat that had been in Labour's hands for decades.
Conservative Trudy Harrison won the seat in a special election in Copeland, a rural district in the far north of England that has long been a Labour stronghold.
It was the first time since 1982 that a governing party gained a seat in a special election, and Labour's defeat raises more questions about Corbyn's ability to strongly lead the party into a general election, expected in 2020.
The surprising victory brought Prime Minister Theresa May to Copeland for a joint appearance with Harrison.
"This is an astounding victory for the Conservative Party but also for the people of Copeland," May told supporters. "Labour have held this seat since the 1930s."
Harrison said Corbyn did not represent "ordinary working people" in the district.
Corbyn, who had campaigned in the district, has struggled to unite his party and faced repeated calls to step down. He said defiantly Friday that he is "proud" to lead the party and will continue to focus on the future of Britain's financially strained National Health Service as well as the issues of social care and housing.
But some Labour legislators said the party is on a disastrous course ahead of the election in 2020.
"We are in trouble as a party," said Labour lawmaker John Woodcock. "We are on course to a historic and catastrophic defeat and that will have very serious consequences for all of the communities that we represent."
The Labour Party's strength in Parliament is at its lowest level since 1987, with only 230 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, and is far behind the Conservatives in the polls. Many Labour figures in Parliament have criticized Corbyn's performance but he retains the support of party militants.
Corbyn also faced criticism from former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has urged Britons to rethink their decision to leave the European Union. Corbyn now backs Brexit — a British exit from the 28-nation bloc — after having opposed it before the June referendum.
In a second special election, Labour held on to its seat in Stoke-on-Trent Central, beating back a challenge by the right-wing, anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, which was represented by party leader Paul Nuttall.
The special elections were held after the lawmakers in both districts resigned.