Blair enters the fray in local elections

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The Independent Online
PRIME MINISTER'S question time was turned into a platform for a local-elections hustings meeting yesterday, when Tony Blair faced a birthday barrage of Commons point-scoring.

Mr Blair, 45 yesterday, was offered a series of soft-ball questions about Labour's first-year record - allowing him to offer the voters much advice on today's poll for 4,174 councillors in London, shire districts, metropolitan districts and unitary authorities.

No elections are taking place in Scotland or in Wales, but the local elections coincide with a referendum on whether there should be a London mayor, and assembly, along with a by-election in the European constituency of Yorkshire South.

The elections will offer a first anniversary test of Labour's popularity, and party leaders have been busy preparing the ground for a low poll.

"The main enemy of the Labour Party is not any renewed enthusiasm for the Conservative Party, but complacency among Labour voters," John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, told an eve-of-poll press conference.

The Prime Minister said on Capital Radio: "It's so important people come out and vote for the mayor in the referendum because if they don't vote for it, people won't get it. It's so important for London that we have a strong political figure able to tackle the issues that affect Londoners. Let's take the chance ... and make London in the millennium one of the great, exciting capital cities of the world."

In the Commons, David Crausby, Labour MP for Bolton North East, asked Mr Blair whether he was aware that Tory councils across the country had not passed on pounds 2.5bn meant for education. "How can you ensure in these circumstances that our children all get a first class education?" he said.

Mr Blair told him there was a clear difference between Labour councils that had been passing the money on to their schools and Tory councils like Essex, "which was given an extra pounds 27m and cut pounds 6m from their education budget".

But Richard Ottaway, a Tory spokesman on London, said: "In 1994, the Labour group on Croydon Council pledged not to increase the council tax for the life of that council. You speak a lot about partnerships between government and local authorities. Who is to blame for this broken promise - the Labour government or the Labour council?"

The Prime Minister said Labour Croydon had given excellent value for money, even within the spending limits laid down by the previous Tory government and since adopted by the Labour government.

Services being provided by Labour councils were significantly better than the Tories. "That's a matter of fact and another good reason why I hope people will support their council in Croydon tomorrow."

Mr Blair also told Derek Twigg, Labour MP for Halton, that there were 240 seats which the Tories were not contesting, but Lord Parkinson, the Conservative Party chairman, told a press conference the Tories had worked very hard and had a lot of very good candidates. "We expect to make gains," he said.