Lib Dem Surge Changes the Landscape
The Guardian UK
Friday 2 May 2003
Councils now three-party race as Labour tries to explain scale of losses.
Results last night showed local government becoming a genuinely three-horse race for the first time in England.
The Conservatives made modest gains in local elections, mainly at the expense of Labour, to become the main party in English local government. But in a night when Labour lost overall control of Birmingham after 19 years, as well as several other big urban councils, the Liberal Democrats also edged ahead to make their strongest showing in local government.
Early today Tories had taken 34% of the vote overall with Labour on 31% and the Liberal Democrats only one point behind as Labour. Tories gained over 100 councillors, Labour losing 150 and the Liberal Democrats taking over 30.
The British National party made significant gains as it more than doubled its number of councillors in England from five to 13. Its best result came in Burnley where it won eight seats - up five - to make the far right party the second largest group on the council.
But the BNP failed to achieve a major breakthrough in northern England as it failed to win any seats in Sunderland, despite fielding 25 candidates. Nick Griffin, the party's leader, also failed to win a seat in Oldham despite mounting a strong campaign.
Early calculations put the overall turnout around a dismal 30% overall, although it was up to 10 points higher in a string of areas which had experimented with widespread postal voting.
Edward Davey MP, the Lib Dem local government spokesman, hailed his party's result as a significant change in the landscape of English politics which would create a new dynamism in much of the country.
While Labour tried to explain its losses as predictable mid-term reversals, it was clear early today that the scale of its defeats caught party managers off guard. But John Reid, leader of the Commons, tried to make the best of the losses by recalling that Willian Hague three years ago received almost 40% of the vote, gaining 1,400 additional seats.
"The story today is not a government making mid-term loses some seats, particularly in the West Midlands, but the utter failure of the Tories to fall back from what William Hague had two or three years ago," Mr Reid said.
Labour's loss of England's second city, Birmingham, to a combination of Liberal Democrats and Tories came after a poor audit commission report on the performance of the city council, plagued by problems in its social services department. Labour lost 11 seats, with three of its cabinet members defeated, giving no party overall control in the council chamber. The council leader, Sir Albert Bore, regarded as one of Labour's key voices in local government - he also chairs the European Union's committee of the regions - could not disguise his disappointment.
Conservatives made the first gains, taking control of two councils from Labour, East Staffordshire and Hyndburn in Lancashire. In Basildon, a national political weather vane in general elections - where no party had overall control - the Tories won two seats from Labour to take control. Conservatives will also take over in Mendip, Worcester, Congleton, and Stratford upon Avon, but lost control of the border city of Carlisle.
As well as Birmingham, Labour also lost overall control of Bristol, Exeter, and three councils in Greater Manchester - Trafford, Bolton and Rochdale. The Liberal Democrats gained a string of council seats, taking Torbay - a council rated one of the poorest in the country by the audit commission - from the Tories. While losing Brentwood in Essex, they gained Watford where the Lib Dems won the contest for an elected executive mayor last year.
But, as in most local elections, all parties could claim gains against the overall trend, reflecting voters' judgment on local rather than national issues. Carlisle, gained from Labour four years ago in a parochial row over a disputed millennium pyramid project, fell from the Tories' grasp while Labour took Sheffield from the Liberal Democrats.
Significantly, voters delivered harsh judgments on councils judged to be poor by recent audit commission inspections, with Torbay and Birmingham falling from the Tories and Labour respectively after extensive publicity about town hall under-performance.
Major boundary changes this year, however, make direct comparison with the similar elections four years ago difficult: around 140 of the 308 councils in England were affected in this way.
But it is clear Labour support has been eroded by disaffection among middle-class voters and activists over the war with Iraq, while trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt conceded early today that crucial Muslim supporters in cities, such as her own Leicester, were registering protests against Labour. She said she was "not surprised" by the lack of support for Labour in the Muslim community.
Michael Ancram, the deputy Tory leader, claimed his party's gains reflected steady progress under Iain Duncan Smith. He said Labour's losses were far more than the party anticipated.
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