Swing augurs a 138-seat Labour majority

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The Independent Online
The implications of Thursday's vote for the next general election are deeply gloomy for the Conservatives, with only the faintest of silver linings.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, admitted at yesterday's victory news conference: "I'm useless at statistics." But he was right to insist that the important comparison is between this week's local elections and those in May 1991, 11 months before the last general election.

Although the elections in 1991 were in a different set of local councils, the BBC's number crunchers estimate how they translate into parties' shares of the national vote. In 1991, Labour were just 1 percentage point ahead of the Tories. On Thursday, Labour were 16 points ahead.

A simple projection forwards, assuming the same relationship between local and national voting, suggests that Mr Blair is heading for a 7.5- point lead at the general election, which must be held within the next 12 months. That, as the BBC's Peter Snow might say, would mean a Labour majority of 138 seats - nearly as large as Margaret Thatcher's 144-seat majority in 1983.

Little wonder the bookmakers yesterday shortened the odds on a Labour victory.

But, of course, there are - as Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, also rightly insisted yesterday - reasons for thinking that Mr Blair will not have such an easy ride to Downing Street.

The first, and perhaps most important, was the low turnout, suggesting that voters are not yet so enthused by new Labour that they feel they actually have to take a detour on the way to work to sign up for it.

Turnout figures for local elections are notoriously difficult to compare year on year, but the BBC computer processing the early results on Thursday night showed many turnout figures dropping by about two percentage points.

This means turnout was, on average, sinking down towards 30 per cent, compared with 46 per cent in 1991 (and 78 per cent in the last general election).

Against this background, Mr Blair's claim that the local elections showed "people are demonstrating a far greater enthusiasm for today's Labour Party" rings a little hollow.

The other main reason for scepticism about Labour's performance is that local elections, like by-elections and opinion polls, have increasingly been used to express a protest against the Government - a protest that is probably becoming increasingly disconnected from people's real views when it comes to choosing a Government.

On the other hand, there are grounds for suggesting that Thursday's results might even have understated Labour's strength. Labour has for years underperformed its national opinion poll ratings in local elections, while the Liberal Democrats have overperformed, and the Tories follow their poll ratings quite closely.

It is likely that, as at the last general election, many people who have become used to voting Liberal Democrat for council elections - either as a tactical vote against the Tories or as a protest against a local Labour council - will switch to Labour for parliamentary elections.

But the triumph for the Liberal Democrats was that they resisted the surge of new Labour onto the centre ground. They took control of six more councils and pushed the Conservatives further into third place.

Even more encouragingly for them, on the BBC's estimate, their share of the vote was up - and if some of their targets such as Mole Valley and Stratford-upon-Avon failed to fall, they took Hastings in a fierce fight with Labour.

They failed to advance in Oldham, where Labour took five seats from the Conservatives to gain overall control, and along with the Conservatives lost seats in Rochdale as Labour took the council decisively from no overall control - a change that could threaten the Liberal Democrat MP, Liz Lynne.

The party's results aggregated across other constituencies, however, showed them taking over 50 per cent of the vote in the new Oldham East and Saddleworth seat, while Norman Lamont's departure from Kingston to the apparently safer haven of Harrogate and Knaresborough will prove a nasty shock if the general election result mirrors the council vote. The Liberal Democrats took 49.5 per cent, against just over 32 per cent for the Tories.

The party's results in the inner cities were mixed - despite Paddy Ashdown's claim that "where the Conservatives need to be beaten we are proving we can beat them, and where Labour governs badly we can beat them too." The Liberal Democrats took six seats in Sheffield, three each off Labour and the Conservatives, and became the official opposition ahead of the Conservatives in Birmingham as the Tories lost fifteen seats, 12 to Labour and 3 to the Liberal Democrats.

Gains and losses on Thursday

Councillors Overall total in

Great Britain

Con -567 4,415

Lab +459 11,326

LD +147 5,182

Others -38 2,558

Councils

Con -1 12

Lab +11 218

LD +6 56

No overall control -17 140

Other +1 31

Source: BBC Political Research Unit

Share of the vote

1991 92 ge 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996

Con 35% 42% 45% 31% 27% 25% 27%

Lab 36% 35% 30% 41% 42% 46% 43%

LD 21% 18% 19% 24% 27% 24% 26%

National equivalent estimated by BBC

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