Local Elections: Opposition parties jubilant at gains

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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

JOHN SMITH and Paddy Ashdown yesterday both claimed victory for their parties in the local government elections.

However, Tory backbenchers, braced for a leadership crisis, said Labour had failed to make the breakthrough necessary for a general election victory.

'If our vote had travelled to Labour, there would have been a meltdown today because it would have been impossible to get them back in time for the general election. But that didn't happen. Our vote stayed at home,' one Tory said.

A leading Labour source said the Liberal Democrats had piled up votes in Tory areas in the South which would not damage Labour in a general election.

The Liberal Democrats' gains in the Tory heartlands included the Tory seaside town of Worthing. Labour failed to win a single seat in the town.

Mr Ashdown said: 'We are now an established party of government, and the main challenge to both old parties in their heartlands,' he said.

The Tories would be panicking over Mr Major's leadership. 'As Mr Major loves cricketing analogies, it will be the first ball of a hat-trick - last night the local elections; the European elections; and Eastleigh. If that happens, the issue would not just be his position: the Government's position would be untenable.'

An ebullient Mr Smith dismissed the Liberal Democrat victories in the South. 'Labour has done well in the South as well as in the North. Labour is now a party appealing to every part of Britain and every section of society,' Mr Smith said.

The Labour leader also brushed aside the clear evidence that the Liberal Democrats were heading for victory in the parliamentary Eastleigh by-election after gaining four seats in the town's local elections, by taking two from the Tories and two from Labour. Mr Smith said: 'The message is very simple: if you want to hit the Tories hard, vote Labour; if you want to give them a soft slap on the wrist, vote Liberal Democrat.'

Labour were jubilant over the victories in the London boroughs, against the Tories in Croydon, Ealing, Enfield, gains in 'true blue' Tory areas such as Redbridge, Bexley and Barnet, and defeating the Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets. Frank Dobson, the Labour campaign co-ordinator for the capital, said that was a victory against the BNP and 'covert racism' in the Liberal Democrats.