Britain’s Labour Party suffers losses in local polls


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London : Britain's ruling Labour Party suffered marked losses in local and regional elections, the last of the Blair era, but results Friday showed that the party steered clear of an "electoral disaster" that had been widely predicted.

Nearly 40 million voters were called to the polls across Britain, except in London, Thursday to choose town and city councils and elect the representatives to the regional parliaments in Scotland and Wales.

The elections, coming in the middle of Labour's third term in national government, were seen widely as a "final verdict" on the 10-year tenure on Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is due to step down within the next few weeks.

Clearly relieved that the results coming in from Scotland, Wales and large parts of England were less damaging than predicted, Blair said Labour had a good chance to win the next general elections in 2009 or 2010.

"People thought it was going to be a rout and it's not turned out like that," said Blair. "These results are a perfectly good springboard for the next general election," he added.

However, a serious challenge to Labour's traditional dominance in Scotland, and a result that could force Labour into a coalition government in Wales, underlined voters' disenchantment with the Blair years, commentators said.

In Scotland, Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) were locked in a neck-and-neck race, but as counting proceeded Friday afternoon Labour moved ahead, having won 34 seats to the 129-seat Scottish parliament, compared with 34 for the SNP.

In the Scottish elections, the SNP defeated Labour in the constituency of Central Fife, the home of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who is expected to succeed Blair as Labour leader and prime minister.

"The wind of change is blowing through Scottish politics," said SNP leader Alex Salmond Friday in a reference to the gains made by his party, which advocates separation from the United Kingdom.

The elections in Scotland were marred by what the authorities said were "serious technical failures" of a new electronic counting system.

As a result, a total of up to 100,000 ballot papers could be spoilt, the electoral commission said, while leaving open the question of whether the election would have to be re-run.

The Labour losses were most pronounced in elections to 312 councils in England, where the oppositioon Conservatives made marked gains.

The Conservatives became the largest party in Birmingham, Britain's second city, for the first time in 24 years, and also gained control of the northern city of Chester.

The Conservatives also gained ground in the southern counties of England, their traditional stronghold.

David Cameron, the party's new leader, who is fast emerging as a credible challenger to Labour's rule on the national stage, described the conservative gains as "a stunning set of results".

The Liberal Democrats, Britain's third-largest political party, lost ground in the local elections, the results showed.

The far right British Nationalist Party (BNP), which fielded a record number of candidates for this year's polls, failed to make significant gains.

"It's disappointing, but we'll be back next year," the BNP's deputy leader, Simon Smith, told the BBC.