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ANALYSIS - A DAY OF HARD LABOUR

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Mithran Samuel, Mark Smulian and Kerry Lorimer take stock of Super Thursday and its aftermath ...
Mithran Samuel, Mark Smulian and Kerry Lorimer take stock of Super Thursday and its aftermath

The chaos surrounding last week's postal vote was a gruelling experience

for returning officers charged with carrying it out.

It may have boosted turnout, but in its wake comes threats of legal action, recriminations, police investigations - and claims that the 13% increase was not enough of an improvement on the 7% delivered elsewhere to justify the difficulties involved.

All-postal voting took place in the north-east, east midlands, north-west and Yorkshire and The Humber.

Ironically, one of the loudest claims of postal vote impropriety have come in Birmingham, outside the pilot areas, where Liberal Democrat group leader John Hemming planned high-court action over the Aston ward result.

Police are investigating in the Sparkhill area, where 'it would appear multiple applications for postal votes [were] being requested and forwarded to one single address'.

Greater Manchester Police says the nature but not the number of fraud allegations have changed, and praise council officers for investigating suspicious applications.

West Yorkshire Police have probed a number of allegations in Bradford but had insufficient evidence to proceed on any of them, and the Lancashire force is investigating proxy vote abuse in Burnley.

Legal action is threatened in Kingston-upon-Hull, where John Considine (Ind) was displaced by John Cornforth (UKIP) in the Derringham ward by seven votes.

Claer Lloyd-Jones, director of law at Hackney LBC, who has supervised earlier postal elections, says: 'To win a petition, you have to show the election was improperly conducted and that [this] materially affected the result. It is very rare. If there are allegations of theft of ballot papers or impersonation, those are matters for the police.'

Turnout was up but varied significantly. To quantify this, compare the places that saw postal and non-postal elections in adjacent councils.

'Postal' Daventry DC scored a 43.7% turnout compared with 40.9% for its neighbour Rugby BC.

Congleton BC had a wider gap over Newcastle-under-Lyme BC at 47.8% against 33.9%.

Many chief executives endured nerve-wracking delays in the receipt and delivery of ballot papers.

Bob Nelsey, of West Lindsey DC, says: 'It did go smoothly in the end, but we had some hiccups with the lateness of ballot papers from the printers.'

Bassetlaw DC's James Molloy says: 'The government made the regulations late so the whole timetable was concertinaed.'

He adds: 'Our turnout rose from 27% to 42%, so what price do you put on people's ability to vote?'

Harrogate BC's Mick Walsh is less sanguine: 'We have a number of concerns, such as votes going to people who had moved, and we are trying to put together a statement of the issues.

'People received ballot papers with folds and mistook those for perforations and tore them up, so we had a lot of half ballot papers returned that were disallowed. I've mixed feelings about the whole thing.'

The print industry has come under fire for a series of errors that included ballot papers dispatched late, to the wrong wards, or even to the wrong towns (LGC, 3 June).

Steve Lake, chair of the Association of Electoral Administrators, says: 'I think the print companies took a view that they were able to deliver in the timescale, but it was probably a bigger task than they thought.'

The British Printing Industries Federation say returning officers were warned by many large printers that the deadlines were too tight, and so looked for others willing to do the work.

A spokeswoman says: 'Smaller suppliers find the opportunity to undertake large contracts alluring.'

The Electoral Commission is to evaluate the pilots and report in September on their conduct.

Electoral war verdict

Labour's drubbing in last week's local elections is widely seen as the electorate's verdict on prime minister Tony Blair's premiership and Iraq in particular.

Local issues have taken a back seat in analyses of the results, not just in the media, but among Labour councillors and former councillors up and down the land.

Local Government Association Labour group leader Sir Jeremy Beecham retained his seat on Newcastle City Council, but many colleagues did not, as the party was swept from power by the Lib Dems after 30 years of continuous control.

He says: 'We've slipped 7% or 8% since last year's elections and that had nothing to do with [local] policy. It's in good part a reflection of the national situation and an effective, negative Lib Dem campaign.'

Coventry City Council is one of the fastest-improving authorities in the country, but that did not stop its minority Labour administration losing power to the Conservatives.

Outgoing council leader John Mutton claims Iraq cost the party dear in wards with large Muslim populations.

He says: 'I think Iraq was the biggest single issue, but only in particular wards - those with a high number of Muslim people living in them.'

It is, of course, in Labour councillors' interests to argue for the prevalence of national factors in their poor performance. But it is a hard analysis to argue with at a general level, given the gravity of the party's defeats across the country.

Labour lost 479 seats and control of eight councils across its metropolitan heartlands. Many former bastions, including Newcastle City Council, Doncaster MBC and Leeds City Council, have been lost, while its 40-seat majority on Manchester City Council was slashed to 15 by the Lib Dems.

But local issues have played a part in shaping results, bubbling away beneath the surface of the national campaigns fought by the three major parties.

For instance, Sir Jeremy admits that the 'incumbency effect' of Labour's 30 years in power in Newcastle - where leader Tony Flynn lost his seat in one of the shock results of the elections - was instrumental in the Lib Dems' victory.

In Doncaster, a surge in support for the Independent and Community Group, alongside gains for the Tories and Lib Dems, followed a residents' campaign to unseat Labour elected mayor Martin Winter (LGC, 4 March).

He will spend a tricky last year of his mayoral term governing with an opposition majority on the council, after Labour lost 18 seats.

Elsewhere Labour bucked the national trend, notably in two independent mayoralties - Hartlepool BC and Stoke-on-Trent City Council - where it improved to claim a majority of seats.

However, Labour's victory in Stoke sets up an uneasy cohabitation arrangement with Mike Woolfe and the only elected mayor to govern with a council manager - chief executive Ita O'Donovan.

It is a constitutional model Labour group leader Mick Salih describes as 'cockeyed' - and ironically, the local party will campaign in next year's mayoral election to abolish the system.

Mr Salih says: 'What this city needs is political leadership. We've got an inexperienced mayor with no political allegiance.'

While a number of formerly hung councils, like Hartlepool and Stoke, now have a majority party, others have gone the opposite way.

All over the country, parties have put down their electoral cudgels to try and form workable administrations in newly hung authorities, either through formal coalitions or more informal pacts.

In Leeds, where Labour lost power after 24 years, the Lib Dems, with 26 seats, were trying to broker a deal with the 24-strong Tories and three Greens to overtake the remaining 40 Labour members.

At Birmingham City Council, which remains hung, Labour's ability to continue its minority administration is in doubt following gains for the Tories and Lib Dems.

The two smaller parties now hold 67 seats between them on the 120-strong council, but have not decided whether to form a coalition to force Labour out of office.

According to a Tory source: 'Things are a bit up in the air at the moment.'

The story in Wales

In Wales, Labour came through with control over eight of the 22 councils, down from 11. Its most spectacular loss was Cardiff CC, where the Liberal Democrats came within five seats of an overall majority.

Rodney Berman, leader of Cardiff's Lib Dem group, is expected to replace controversial former leader Russell Goodway (Lab) as leader of the council. Mr Goodway stood down as leader of his own group in the face of a challenge from Greg Owens (Lab), who was elected unopposed.

Labour also lost overall control in the City & County of Swansea and Bridgend CBC. Although it remains the largest party in both councils, it is likely to be edged into opposition by Lib Dem-led coalitions.

Alex Aldridge (Lab), leader of Flintshire CC, said Labour had taken 'an immense thumping' across Wales. However, Labour made gains in its valleys heartland, winning both Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC and Caerphilly CBC from Plaid Cymru.

Pauline Jarman (Plaid), former leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf, said her party had been 'no match' for Labour's political machine on the day.

It was a disappointing result for the nationalists, who lost 28 seats overall. However, Plaid held onto Gwynedd Council, became the largest party in Ceredigion CC and took its first ever seats in Monmouthshire CC.

In Ceredigion, discussions are under way between a reduced independent group and the Lib Dems over whether to renew a coalition to keep Plaid out of power.

The Conservatives' one gain was in Monmouthshire, which they took convincingly from Labour. However they failed to take the Vale of Glamorgan, which remains under no overall control.

The results cast doubt over who will succeed Sir Harry Jones as leader of the Welsh Local Government Association. Mr Goodway and Lawrence Bailey (Lab), previously leader of Swansea, had until the election been seen as the strongest contenders.

London mayoral victory for Livingstone

Mayor of London Ken Livingstone has started his second term in typically confident fashion.

At his first press conference, he predicted that next month's spending review would bring good news for London, despite the chancellor's repeated threats of a tight settlement.

When asked about prospective relations with a London Assembly now more hostile to his policies than before, he joked: 'They have every right to agree with my agenda.'

Such confidence not only betrays Mr Livingstone's character but his achievement in comfortably keeping his job amid Labour's poor performance nationally and in the assembly elections.

On paper, he could face problems from the assembly, with opposition parties - including the newly enfranchised UK Independence Party - holding 18 seats between them, enough to amend his budget.

As expected, Nicky Gavron has been appointed deputy mayor for

Mr Livingstone's full term, while Len Duvall has replaced Toby Harris, who lost his assembly seat last week, as chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority.

While the Conservatives are now the largest party on the assembly, the battle between that party and Mr Livingstone could be played out in the London boroughs as much as in city hall.

Before the election, he cut£1.5m in transport funding to Conservative-controlled Barnet LBC for ripping out

road humps and removing bus and cycle lanes.

More generally, Mr Livingstone and the boroughs could come into conflict over planning guidance he is due to issue to councils about making 50% of new homes affordable.

The mayor said: 'It will set out in detail what we expect of the boroughs.'

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