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LIB DEMS COULD BECOME OFFICIAL LOCAL OPPOSITION TO LABOUR

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Despite disappointing local results, the Lib Dems could become the official lcoal opposition to Labour, say Colin R...
Despite disappointing local results, the Lib Dems could become the official lcoal opposition to Labour, say Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, directors of the Local Government Chronicle Elections Centre at the Universtiy of Plymouth:

It was scarcely surprising that analysis of last week's local government contests was submerged under the weight of attention rightly given to Labour's landslide general election victory. Yet, as we predicted in LGC, 25 April, the Tories did emerge from their trauma with more councils and councillors than before 1 May. Already at least one party leadership contender, John Redwood, has seized on this and claimed that recovery in local government will prove to be the foundation on which the party nationally will re-build. We shall see.

Ironically, given the unprecedented number of parliamentary seats won by the Liberal Democrats, it was at the expense of Paddy Ashdown's party that most of the more than 200 Tory seat gains came. This pattern enabled the Tories to win back control in a number of shire counties in affluent, southern England and to take their first ever unitary councils.

The precise picture is complicated this year by the changing boundaries of the counties following the local government review. One of the Conservatives did sufficiently well to win control immediately, a status that they will retain with an increased majority when more Labour-inclined areas assume unitary authority status on 1 April 1998.

In Essex the council will remain in no overall control until then, but once Southend and Thurrock have been removed, the Tories will have a majority. In many ways Essex provides the most fascinating result of the whole election as Tory gains at local level appeared to run counter to some dramatic parliamentary reverses. Labour gained such middle-class bastions as Castle Point and Harwich and the Lib Dems picked up Colchester in a close three-way fight.

The Tories will also be the largest party in nine of the now 15 hung counties. They are very close to a majority in East Sussex, Hertfordshire and North Yorkshire, but - as has been the pattern in the past - are likely to be prevented from forming a single-party minority regime by the combined opposition forces.

As expected, the Tories did benefit in the unitary contests from the fact that the break-up of Berkshire coincided with a general election. They won overall control in both Bracknell Forest and Wokingham and pushed closer to the Liberal Democrats in Windsor and Maidenhead. They also became the largest party in Southend.

These were disappointing local elections for the Lib Dems who effectively lost control in six councils, but for the moment at least that feeling will be swamped by their euphoria at Westminster. Nonetheless it proved how vulnerable they can still be to an even modestly revived Tory party in those areas not subjected to targeted campaigning. It is no coincidence that the party's two best performances - easily retaining control inNewbury and Torbay - were also the site of parliamentary triumphs. Similarly, the party also took the new unitary of Hertfordshire - where there were large numbers of Independent councillors before the elections - as well as the Hereford constituency.

The medium-term task for the Lib Dems is to try to retain their place as the second party of local government, but the gap between them and the Tories has already begun to narrow. The Lib Dems now have 25 more councils and 400 more councillors than the Tories; before last Thursday the figures were 40 and 800 respectively. History suggests it will be the Tories rather than the Lib Dems who gain electoral benefit from any Labour government unpopularity. However, it is unlikely that the Tories, already deprived of thousands of local activists and now without a leader too, will be in a position to mount an equal challenge to Labour for some time. The chance for the Lib Dems to become the 'official' local opposition to Labour is there for the taking.

As for Labour its local power base remains almost as strong as its national one has now become. The party made few gains in either seats or councils last week, but it was starting from a high base and the elections were not held in its best territory. But even if the electorate's honeymoon with Tony Blair begins to wear off as the months pass, Labour too will be helped by the Tories current problems.

Both Harold Wilson in the mid-60s and Jim Callaghan a decade later suffered local council humiliation as their governments drifted to defeat. As Labour begins immediately to prepare the ground for a second general election victory, its strategists know that the conventional opposition party is much less well-honed now than then to take advantage of any mistakes. Not for the first time Mr Blair could prove to be a lucky politician.

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