Elections 1994: Lib Dems confident of gains North and South

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THE LIBERAL Democrats yesterday became the first party to set a target to aim at in next month's local elections, with a prediction that they would win 25 per cent more seats than four years ago.

Party leaders said they would win votes at the expense of the Tories in the South and Labour in the North. The other main parties have fought shy of forecasting but the Liberal Democrats said that they would make gains in Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Oldham and St Helens, and Southwark and Lambeth in London.

Charles Kennedy, the party's president, who is leading the local election campaign, also predicted that Labour could lose overall control in Oldham, Liverpool and St Helens. Their confidence is based partly on the fact that they performed poorly outside London four years ago when they won just 7.7 per cent of the seats in metropolitan districts and 19.5 per cent in non- metropolitan districts.

Mr Kennedy concentrated his attack on the record of Labour's 'fossilised' councils in the North, and on Southwark and Lambeth. Labour is defending more seats than the Tories and has more to fear from Liberal Democrat success.

Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman, has given notice of the party's intention to switch its fire to the Liberals today, after an increasingly unrewarding battle with the Conservatives over the levels of council tax.

Launching his party's campaign for the London boroughs, Mr Straw said that the Government had attempted to bribe the electorate in Wandsworth and Westminster. Wandsworth, representing 0.55 per cent of the population of England, received 11.6 per cent of the total non-needs grant for the whole of the country, while central governemnt contributed all but 4 per cent of Westminster's spending, he said.

The Liberal Democrats are looking to increase their representation in both Kingston upon Thames and Harrow in outer London where Conservative control is under threat from a combination of Labour and Liberal Democrats.

Mr Kennedy said that he believed his party's problems in Tower Hamlets, where an internal inquiry found a number of party members had 'pandered to racism' in a by-election last year, had now been resolved. However, the damage to the party's reputation caused by accusations of racism could have an impact on other inner-London boroughs, such as Hackney and Greenwich, where the party hopes to replace the Tories as the main opposition to Labour.

Mr Kennedy rejected the Tory charge that the party had different policies in different localities as it tried to pick up votes wherever it could: 'We have a strong record on local services and value for money. Above all, we give local people a chance to take decisions and rebuild Britain's local democracy.'

Diana Maddock, Liberal Democrat MP for Christchurch, said that the other parties had found that once Liberal Democrats had been elected, they had proved difficult to remove and the party's total of councillors had risen from 804 in 1978 to more than 4,200.