How Britain Voted: Cheer in moderation all round

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The Independent Online
AS HE signed off the BBC's local election results programme, presenter Huw Edwards commented that all three party representatives appeared to be cheerful.

At one level they seemed to have good cause. Labour had escaped the traditional mid-term mugging; the Conservatives had made enough gains to buy William Hague time - at least until June's European elections; and the Liberal Democrats had the high-profile scalp of Sheffield to conceal other losses.

But the English local elections were always going to be difficult to call. Gains of 700 seats would normally represent a triumph for any political party, but this year, because the Tories were comprehensively slaughtered when most of these seats were last fought in 1995, 700 gains would only take them back to their disastrous performance in the 1997 general election. So their final tally of almost 1,400 net gains flattered to deceive - it was a barely respectable performance.

Labour comfortably avoided the worst predictions of its potential losses but found itself attacked on two fronts - by the Liberal Democrats in its urban heartlands and by the Tories in the shires.

However, while it suffered some serious and embarrassing losses in the North and Midlands, the swing against Labour in the South, where it made such astonishing inroads in 1997, appeared to be smaller - evidence that New Labour retains its charm for many. Tony Blair will not losesleep over these results.

The 27 per cent Liberal Democrat share of the national vote will give little ammunition to the critics of Paddy Ashdown's policy of constructive engagement with Labour. It was their best share for five years. However, some of the shine was taken off this success as we saw evidence of the Conservatives beginning to retake some of the seats in the South they had steadily lost to the Liberal Democrats during their 18 years in government.

Overall, the vote share from Thursday's local elections suggests no progress for the Conservatives since May 1998. Worse still for Mr Hague, perhaps two years away from the next general election, the Conservative share of the vote was only 2 percentage points above their dreadful level in the last general election.

The results of the Scottish Parliament elections were no great surprise - the chance of a one-party government was never high. As most polls predicted, Labour, as the largest party, will be able to create a governing majority in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This outcome accords with the BBC Scotland election poll, in which a majority of voters said they preferred a coalition to Labour going it alone.

Alex Salmond will survive as leader of the Scottish National Party, although the campaign seems to have damaged his personal standing. Interestingly, while just over one-third of Scottish voters thought the new Parliament would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom, 54 per cent (including 43 per cent of SNP supporters) disagreed.

But the remarkable victories of Dennis Canavan and Tommy Sheridan will serve as a reminder to "London Labour" that the Scots don't need independence in order to do their own thing.

Paradoxically, the greatest blow to Labour was delivered in the party's stronghold of Wales. Nothing prepared us for the scale of Plaid Cymru's success, nor for the list of Labour citadels that fell yesterday.

Low turnout explains some of the story, but such a hammering cannot be brushed away. Labour needs to discover why the Welsh chose to wreck Mr Blair's "super Thursday".

David Cowling is a political analyst