Labour facing election meltdown

Political Editor Graham Dines previews tomorrow's council elections taking place in London and much of England.THE last thing a political party in turmoil needs is a crucial set of council elections.

Political Editor Graham Dines previews tomorrow's council elections taking place in London and much of England.

THE last thing a political party in turmoil needs is a crucial set of council elections. Tomorrow, Labour will find out if the crises engulfing three Cabinet ministers are having any impact on public opinion.

With Charles Clarke, Patricia Hewitt, and John Prescott hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons, Labour candidates will be up against it with the new leaders of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell, desperate to make a good showing.

For Mr Cameron, there is a lot to prove. He has moved his party to the left to try to win the support of younger voters and to attract back to the fold Conservatives who in the past 10 years have switched to Labour and Liberal Democrats.


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His green agenda, in particular, is pitched at the growing numbers who put the environment and global warming at the top of their concerns.

This year's local elections are the smallest set in the four year-cycle in terms of the number of people entitled to vote, but they are the second biggest regarding seats up for election.

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Contests will only be taking place in England - and looming over everything else is London, where all council seats in all 32 boroughs are being contested.

If London swings away from Labour, the implications for the future of Tony Blair could be enormous. The capital contains some of Labour's most steadfast heartlands and although local elections should not be about national politics, voters could decide to give the Government a kicking, which would heighten discontent against the Prime Minister in Labour ranks.

Labour defends 849 of London's 1,861 seats, Tories 640, Liberal Democrat 313 and others 59. Labour controls 15 London boroughs and holds 857 across the capital, the Tories eight with 643 seats, and the Liberal Democrats three and 315 seats.

While the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats should be the main beneficiaries of any dissatisfaction with Labour, there are worrying signs that in some of the east London boroughs, the far right British National Party could pick up a lot of support among traditional white Labour voters who feel marginalised by Labour's immigration and asylum policies.

Although London mayor Ken Livingstone does not have to face the electorate for two years, he will be watching the outcome of the elections closely, especially in three London boroughs which have their own elected mayoral contests tomorrow - Hackney, Lewisham, and Newham.

A third of the seats on 81 shire district councils are being contested - including Colchester, Epping Forest, Brentwood, Basildon, Castle Point, Rochford, Ipswich, Waveney, Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Cambridge, South Cambridgeshire, and Huntingdonshire.

A third of the seats on 20 unitary councils, including Peterborough, Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea, are up for election as well as a third of all seats in the 36 big city metropolitan authorities in the midlands and north such as Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, Salford, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland.

In Watford, the Liberal Democrats will be desperately hoping that their mayor Dorothy Thornhill is successfully re-elected. Despite Lib Dem optimism, they failed to win the parliamentary constituency last year and Mrs Thornhill faces tough opposition from Labour, the Conservatives and the Green Party.

The Conservatives go into these elections in a stronger position in the national opinion polls than at any time for 14 years. Party chairman Francis Maude says: “Although we have been stuck at just over 30% in general elections and opinion polls for most of the past 14 years, in local government we have made a strong recovery since 1997. We are already by some distance the largest party in local government in seats and councils controlled.

“Most of the seats up for election were last contested in 2002 when we got a national equivalent vote share of 34%, compared with Labour's 33% and the Liberal Democrats; 27%.

“Two thirds of the seats tomorrow are being contested in urban areas. While it is critical we improve our performance in these areas, this is a long-term project. In many urban areas, the Conservative organisation is weak and will take some time to strengthen it.”

Although there is an expectation in the media that the Liberal Democrats are on course for a poor performance, Mr Maude cautioned: “In our experience, their local candidates are much less affected by the standing of the national party than Conservative or Labour candidates.”

In the East of England, Conservative candidates are contesting 432 of the 435 seats at stake. Labour is fielding 386 candidates and the Liberal Democrats 358. Nationwide, more than 15,000 candidates are fighting for 4,417 seats.

Among the large contingents of “other” candidates in all authorities are 1,251 from the Green Party - including, for the first time, every seat in Colchester - 363 from the BNP, 319 from UKIP and 162 from Respect, the Unity Coalition.

A total of 18 lucky candidates have been returned nationwide unopposed. They are three Labour runners for metropolitan councils and 11 Tories, one Labour candidate and three independents in the shire districts.

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