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Last updated: May 4, 2012 10:38 pm
Labour has made sweeping gains in local elections across England and Wales, winning an 8 percentage point lead over the Conservatives and taking control of major cities including Cardiff, Swansea and Birmingham.
However, fears remained among senior Labour figures that the result would be tarnished were Ken Livingstone to fail to unseat Boris Johnson as mayor of London.
The final result in the capital was taking much longer than had been hoped and was much closer than had originally been expected. With 13 out of 14 constituency areas reporting, the Conservative incumbent had a narrow lead of just over 4 percentage points on first preference votes, or under 100,000 votes.
To add to the tension, some counts suffered technical problems and the ballot papers had to be counted by hand.
Speaking about the national results outside his London home on Friday, Ed Miliband, Labour leader, said: “We are a party winning back people’s trust, regaining ground, but there is more work to do.’’
Labour ended up with a 38 per cent vote share and gained more than 800 seats, its best local election results since 1997. The results surpassed Labour expectations and will quell murmuring against Mr Miliband’s leadership.
The Conservatives lost more than 400 seats on a 31 per cent vote share, sparking unrest on the Tory right and pleas for Mr Cameron to adopt a more radical agenda. Gerald Howarth, a defence minister, was among those criticising plans to reform the House of Lords and to legalise gay marriage.
The prime minister is resisting calls to tack to the right and will reassert his commitment to the coalition in a joint appearance with Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader, next week to try to stress their economic “rescue mission”.
The Liberal Democrats suffered another devastating set of results, including a wipeout in parts of the north – including Knowsley – and very poor results in London. Mr Clegg said he was “very sad” but promised to stick with the coalition.
The party lost almost 336 seats with 16 per cent of the vote, slumping to fewer than 3,000 local council seats – the smallest total in their history. The only consolation to Mr Clegg is that discipline in his party remains strong and criticism of his leadership muted.
In what was a bruising night for the coalition parties, the Tories lost Great Yarmouth, Dudley, Plymouth and Harlow to Labour.
Both coalition parties dismissed the results as “predictable” for a midterm government. David Cameron said the country was living through “difficult times and there aren’t easy answers”.
“What we have to do is take the difficult decisions to deal with the debt, deficit and broken economy that we’ve inherited. We will go on making those decisions and we’ve got to do the right thing for our country,” he said.
Comprehensive coverage and analysis of the local election, mayoral and city results
William Hague, the Tory foreign secretary, said his own party’s losses were “well within the normal range” of what would be expected two years into a parliament.
“In 2013 and 2014, people will see the economic benefits of what we are doing,” he told the BBC.
But as the scale of the party’s losses grew, some Tories rounded on the leadership. Bernard Jenkin, a senior Tory backbencher, said the party should “ talk about the economy and the things that matter to voters”.
Heralding the Labour wins, Harriet Harman, the party’s deputy leader said the gains were “very encouraging”.
“We were listening to people saying that the government has to change course on the economy,” Ms Harman told the BBC. “People think the Tories don’t realise what life is like for them. What is interesting is that despite a bad election defeat two years ago, we have a bigger share of the vote this year. We are back in touch and making progress.”
But the SNP, which had been expected to take Glasgow, failed to seize the control from Labour, which regained control of the council.
Labour’s victory in Birmingham brings the Midlands city back into the party’s hands for the first time in eight years.
The party also made sweeping gains in Wales, taking Cardiff, Swansea, Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Newport and Merthyr Tydfil.
“The pendulum seems to have swung quite strongly back to Labour,” said Rhodri Morgan, former first minister of Wales.
Amid a low turnout of about 32 per cent – the lowest in English local elections since 2000 – senior Conservatives had warned the party could lose up to 450 seats to Labour.
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