Triumphant Labour may have heaped humiliation on the Conservatives, but the low turnout could be a warning to Blair.

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The Conservatives' long and irregular decline in local government since taking power at Westminster in 1979 suddenly dropped off the bottom of the graph on Thursday, as Labour took power in unthinkable places and the Liberal Democrats forced the Tories into third place.

Among the councils up for election on Thursday, the Conservatives were reduced to a tiny core around Greater London: three councils in a strip of northern Surrey stretching from Staines to Camberley, and Broxbourne council, Hertfordshire.

Beyond that, the Tories now have only four isolated pockets: Arun council, based around Littlehampton on the Sussex coast; Huntingdon, the Prime Minister's local council; South Staffs, a rural council in the commuter belt north of Wolverhampton; and Macclesfield in Cheshire, now the Tories' most northern outpost.

The Conservatives were dominant in Scotland in the 1950s, but failed to win any of the new councils there last month. Now Wales will become a similar Tory-free zone, with Labour gaining a huge majority on the "most Tory" of the new Welsh councils, Monmouthshire.

It was a much worse electoral meltdown even than the disaster that struck Labour under Harold Wilson in the 1968 local elections, when Labour lost every ward in Birmingham and 27 of 32 London boroughs.

This year, Labour took the seat of Bernard Zissman, Tory group leader on Birmingham council, as well as a string of councils it had never controlled since they were created in 1973. The roll call reads like a list of true- blue England: Portsmouth, Exeter, Dover, Lancaster, St Edmundsbury (Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk), Fenland in Cambridgeshire. Deputy Labour leader John Prescott so liked the sound of "Labour Hove" that he paid a flying visit to the south coast town yesterday.

Party strategists said they never expected to win East Northants or Bromsgrove (south of Birmingham), and that they had been worried that journalists' predictions that Labour would gain Lichfield were misplaced.

At a victory news conference yesterday, Labour paraded Beverley Hughes, its leader on Trafford metropolitan council. She said: "This was not simply a retreat from Conservatism, it was a direct move to the Labour Party based on trust."

The Tories' loss of its last majority-controlled metropolitan council was the most significant single blow of a night of more dramatic losses in one small rural district after another. Labour's most symbolically significant gains came in Essex, including 30 seats taken from the Tories on the 39-seat Castle Point council, covering Benfleet and Canvey Island.

There was one important qualification to the story of spectacular Labour success, and that was the poor turnout - 38 per cent. The implication is that disaffected Conservatives tended to stay at home rather than entrust their votes to Mr Blair, and that the rise in Labour's vote was exaggerated because the party gained a larger share of a smaller total.

Mr Blair performed a fine balancing act at yesterday's news conference. He warned his party against complacency, but accused the Tories of being "arrogant" to think that people who stayed at home would return to the fold in time. The low turnout bore out the warning issued on Wednesday by Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, that the voters had not been inspired by any political party and still had a "growing and angry disrespect that people have for politicians in the political class".

The Liberal Democrats' most significant marker was to overtake the Conservatives as the "second party of local government". Party strategists pointed to unexpected advances to gain majority control of Salisbury in the West, Pendle in the North and Chelmsford in the East, as a rebuttal of the Labour charge that they were just a "regional party" of the South-west. In Salisbury, the Liberal Democrats gained 20 seats, in Chelmsford 10 and in harder- fought Pendle, they gained 3 from Labour and 2 from the Conservatives.

Chris Rennard, director of campaigns and elections, listed the party's strong showing in local councils covering several of its parliamentary targets. The Liberal Democrats won a majority of the votes in the constituencies of Birmingham Yardley (Lab), Hazel Grove (C), Isle of Wight (C), the new Mid Dorset, and Poole and Torbay (C).

Liberal Democrat fears that Labour's strong showing would deprive them of Tory prizes turned out to be unfounded, because the collapse in the Conservative vote was so dramatic. Only in Mendip district council did a Labour surge, winning six seats from Conservatives and Independents, leave the Liberal Democrats without the one gain they needed to take control. But in many places where the Liberal Democrats made large gains, Labour won seats from the Tories too. And in much of northern England, their advance of recent years was halted, with Labour winning back seats in Liverpool, Oldham, Sheffield and Kirklees, where the Liberal Democrats had confidently predicted gains.

In Liverpool, Labour won two Liberal Democrat wards and swept away remnants of the hard left to take virtual control. In Sheffield, all four remaining Conservative wards fell to the Liberal Democrats, including that of the Tory group leader elect.

This year's polls represent a turning point in the changing nature of British local elections. Much of this century has seen the spread of party politics, which accompanied the rise of the Labour Party. The Liberals, virtually extinct in the 1950s, emerged as a real force in local government only in the 1980s. Their arrival has coincided with the increasing volatility of local elections, as voters use them more and more as a means of registering mid-term protests against the Toriesin central government.

This makes it difficult to draw conclusions for national politics. After Labour's meltdown in 1968, the party nearly held on in the general election of 1970. And, after the Conservatives' disastrous showing in the local elections in the poll tax year of 1990 (ingeniously presented by party chairman Kenneth Baker as a triumph by holding Wandsworth, Westminster and Bradford), the Tories won the 1992 general election. But that was after a change of leadership.

Thursday's votes will have a more damaging impact on the Conservative party than a simple protest vote, as 2,000 former councillors, many of them senior office holders in their local party associations, will be in unforgiving mood. Anthony Dalton, the former leader of Warwick council, called for Mr Major's head: "In Warwick I'm the leader and I have to take responsibility if things go wrong. In national politics it's the same - if something goes wrong there's only one way to correct it and that's to change the leader."

And, more importantly, the dramatic changes in political control in local government will have much more impact on people's everyday lives. In several places, "old Labour" activists unexpectedly found themselves in power. The former Tory leader of Dover warned on Thursday night that Labour in local government would be "Mr Blair's Achilles' heel".

Mr Blair himself seemed aware of the danger, warning Labour councillors that their election demanded the exercise of responsibility. He said: "I am writing to all new councillors to congratulate them and to say that this special responsibility is theirs."

The results in full, page 6

Leading article, page 14

Andrew Marr, page 19

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