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Labour may have come a cropper at last week's local elections, but others found cause for celebration ...
Labour may have come a cropper at last week's local elections, but others found cause for celebration

Labour's losses at last week's local elections were of such a scale that a refreshing air of open admission flowed from the party hierarchy. Home secretary David Blunkett was 'mortified', deputy prime minister John Prescott believed the government had received a 'kicking' while prime minister Tony Blair pleaded for his party to 'hold its nerve', as he apologised to his party's defeated councillors. Dissident backbenchers who suggested Mr Blair reconsider his position prompted wagons to circle and pleas for unity from chancellor Gordon Brown.

The results were dreadful for Labour and comparable to the drubbing Harold Wilson's administration suffered in the late 1960s. When Newcastle City Council, Bassetlaw DC, Ipswich BC and Bridgend CBC are lost, even ardent Labour loyalists have to concede defeat. Sometimes, vanquished parties wave away losses and direct attention to the few success stories. Labour did make gains, including Newcastle-under-Lyme BC, neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Caerphilly CBC, but chose wisely to be cowed rather than foolishly exaggerate the silver lining lying within the dark clouds.

Overall, Labour lost almost one in five of the seats it defended. With wholesale boundary changes and whole council elections across the 36 metropolitan boroughs, this was a bad time to have so much at stake. Based on our estimates of seat distributions following boundary changes, Labour made net losses of 180 seats in the metropolitan areas. The situation was no better in the shires or the English and Welsh unitary councils.

Labour's triumph in securing the London mayoral victory was understandably muted - no point in New Labour drawing attention to one of Old Labour's favourites. London mayor Ken Livingstone saw off the challenge of the Conservative Party's Steve Norris - but only after second votes were scrutinised. For the second time, Mr Livingstone's final vote tally was less than half of all first votes cast, further proof the voting system does not deliver a majority winner. With almost 400,000 votes rejected from the count, is it time to review the operation of the supplementary vote?

The London Assembly election provided some interesting outcomes. The main party leaders each lost their seats. Labour's Lord Harris could not safely defend the marginal Brent and Harrow LBC constituency seat. The same fate, though by a different process, awaited the Conservatives' Eric Ollerenshaw. His chances of securing a list seat were scuppered because of his party's constituency successes.

The allocation of list seats proved fascinating for another reason. The legislation creating the London Assembly introduced a 5% threshold. This is a device used to prevent extremist parties from gaining representation. Had the rule not been in place, the British National Party and Respect would each have won one of the 11 'top-up' seats. Elsewhere, the BNP was successful in Bradford City MDC and Epping Forest DC, but its surge in Burnley has dissipated.

Bad though the results were for Labour, it could have been much worse had its principal opponent enjoyed unqualified success. The Conservatives had headline-grabbing councils gains - Tamworth and Thurrock BCs from Labour, Eastbourne BC from the Liberal Democrats - and elected more councillors but the glory was shared. Indeed, as our table shows, the party sometimes plays second fiddle to the Liberal Democrats. Their gains in the metropolitan boroughs and in Wales were larger than those of the Conservatives.

The recent fate of Tory leaders makes it inevitable that the current occupant is compared with immediate predecessors. In terms of seat gains, leader Michael Howard matched then-leader William Hague's performance in 2000 but fell just short in vote share.

Life is not all rosy either for the Liberal Democrats. True, its vote eclipsed that of Labour's and it secured its position as principal opposition to Labour in the majority of England's larger cities. But the electoral geography of local and parliamentary elections is looking unsynchronised. Many of Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy's parliamentary colleagues are battling the Tories in southern England and the evidence is that even a lacklustre Conservative Party is slowly recovering in places like Cheltenham BC and Winchester City Council. Prospective parliamentary candidates may be itching to take Labour on its urban heartland but those fortifications will possibly need two attacks before crumbling.

Of course, should the UK Independence Party challenge, then the Liberal Democrats will be thankful. Despite its obvious association with Europe and not local government, UKIP increased its councillor numbers, including seats at Derby and Kingston upon Hull City Councils. The Greens too enjoyed success, as did a range of single issue and localised parties.

And it would be wrong not to acknowledge that many of the variations in results for all parties were a reflection of local people making a judgement on how their council had been run.

The pattern of incremental increases in the level of electoral turnout continued, helped by a feeling that politics has become more contentious and competitive. Many authorities saw their highest turnout for over a decade, and not just those such as Sunderland City Council and Trafford MBC - which have had all-postal ballots before - turnout was actually down compared with 2003.

Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher

Directors, LGC Election Centre, University of Plymouth

Elections outcome

Seat gains/losses by type of authority

Mets Shires Unitaries WalesOverall

Conservative+46 +122+40 +32 +240

Labour -180 -140-63 -94 -477

Lib Dem +78 +5 +8 +58 +149

Plaid Cymru - - - -29 -29

Others +56 +13+15 +33 +117

Summary of changes in council control

Gain Lost Net

Con 14 0 14

Lab 7 16 -9

LD 2 4 -2

Ind 0 1 -1

NOC 17 17 0

PC 0 2 -2

Changes in council control

Con gain from Lab

Tamworth BC

Thurrock BC

Con gain from LD

Eastbourne BC

Con gain from NOC

Brentwood BC

Dudley MBC

Harrogate BC

Horsham DC (at

by-election 10 June)

Monmouthshire CC

Rossendale BC

Swindon BC

Trafford MBC

Walsall MBC

West Lindsey DC

Worthing BC

Lab gain from NOC

Hartlepool BC

Merthyr Tydfil CBC

Newcastle-under-Lyme BC

Redditch BC

Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Lab gain from Plaid Cymru

Caerphilly CBC

Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC

LD gain from Lab

Newcastle City Council

LD gain from NOC

Pendle BC

NOC gain from Lab

Bassetlaw DC

Bridgend CBC

Burnley BC

Cardiff CC

Doncaster MBC

Hastings BC

Ipswich BC

Leeds City


North Tyneside Council

Oxford City Council

Slough BC

St Helens MBC

Swansea City & County Council

NOC gain from LD

Cheltenham BC

Norwich City Council

Winchester City Council

NOC gain from Ind

Ceredigion CC

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