Blair set to turn screw on old Labour

A SPECTACULAR Labour win yesterday in Harrow after a late count confirmed a marked suburban shift in its council strength paralleling its parliamentary gains at the last election.

Labour leaders are already using Thursday's election results to increase the pressure on "old" Labour councillors to shape up to the Blairite agenda or to face de-selection.

Tony Blair himself talked of receiving a "message from the electorate" that "good dynamic new Labour councils" were appreciated, leaving unspoken the thought that in Liverpool and Sheffield, where Labour lost heavily, old Labour deserved to lose.

Labour ministers will now review the "best value" programme for councils by which the Government hopes to convince voters it is as serious as the Tories were about efficiency in the town halls while ending compulsory competitive tendering of local services.

However, the voters' willingness to punish sleaze and poor performance was shown to be limited. Labour lost only three seats in Doncaster, where a police investigation is still going on and only four seats in Hull, where allegations of corruption have been flying amid evidence of chronic under-performance in the city's schools.

Official Tory satisfaction at gaining some 250 seats over their 1994 score was dented when in another late result, the party lost control of previously rock-solid Bromley in south London. Though Tories remain the largest party, the Liberal Democrats are likely to take power with Labour support.

Bromley - which in the early 1980s led the legal challenge to the Greater London Council led by Ken Livingstone - also registered, at 42 per cent, the most opposition to the Government's plan to give the capital an elected mayor. Enthusiasm for the scheme - if that is the right word to characterise an average turn out of a third of registered electors - was noticeably higher in inner London than in suburbia. Seventy two per cent voted in favour, with 28 per cent against.

In Liverpool, where the Liberal Democrats gained 10 seats to take overall control, there is now likely to be a concerted effort by Labour officials to reform party procedures. One of the first tasks confronting the Liberal Democrats will be to reconsider putting city services out to private contract - something strenuously resisted by Labour. Liverpool's residents, who are charged the highest rate of council tax in the country, face a period of industrial action by municipal employees.

The overall result does not much change the geography of local politics, with Labour remaining solidly in control of the Local Government Association, based on its strength in London and the cities.

In the capital, Labour lost control in Hillingdon but gained an overall majority in Brent, Waltham Forest and in Lambeth, where it appears to have convinced electors that old Labour inefficiency is a thing of the past. The party did well in impregnable boroughs such as Greenwich and Hammersmith and also in areas once considered prime Tory territory, including Ealing, Enfield and Croydon.

The Liberal Democrats, despite aggregate losses totalling just over 100 seats, remain the second strongest local government party - able to lose significant seats in places such as Cheltenham, Worthing and Eastbourne but still stay in charge. The party did, however, lose control in former strongholds, in Kingston upon Thames and the Isle of Wight - where the Tories picked up 9 seats - and saw several of its other authorities move to a position where no single party has a commanding majority.

The Tories gained seats in no set pattern, taking overall control in Runnymede and Tunbridge Wells, and picking up odd seats in Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Bristol, Portsmouth and Bradford.

The flagship London boroughs did the party proud, registering a number of extra seats. In Wandsworth, where council tax was cut last month, the voters gave the Conservative majority five extra seats.

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