Elections: Conservatives lose grip on their traditional heartlands

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THE TORY SHIRES - it is a phrase that no longer has any political meaning after Thursday's election results which saw the Tories going from overall control in 16 counties to holding just one, Buckinghamshire.

If Manchester United supporters can now sing 'One Man United, there's only one Man United', Labour and Liberal Democrats have now cast their own version: 'One Tory council, there's only one Tory council'.

The Tories lost control in councils which they have always regarded as their homelands: Surrey, where they squandered a 36-seat majority, Kent, which they had controlled for more than 100 years, East and West Sussex, Dorset and Essex.

Labour made one gain, Northamptonshire, but was claiming yesterday to be the dominant party of local government. The Liberal Democrats made huge gains, taking control of Somerset and Cornwall.

But overall the picture is one of hung councils. In 28 councils in England and Wales there is no overall control, compared to 12 before last night. It shows that though nationally the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats publicly shun the idea of electoral pacts, local agreements have been effective. In Berkshire, for example, Labour candidates withdrew in wards where the Liberal Democrats had the best chance of beating the Tories. In power, the coalition of Labour and Liberal Democrats has pushed ahead with privatisation of services such as highways, planning and finance.

The Conservatives had said that hung councils were a recipe for confusion and muddle, but the voters have acted tactically to keep out Tory administrations, and will ally locally to maintain budgets in health, social services and education.

The results will give impetus to attempts, both at county council and parliamentary levels, to forge ahead with Lib-Lab pacts. The large number of hung councils will mean new and growing partnerships between Labour and Liberal Democrats - whatever party leaders say in public.

John Major, the Prime Minister, admitted that the results were not good for his party. 'I make no excuses about that . . . People were determined to give the Government a bloody nose, and that in practice is what they did. We are clearly coming out of recession, but the effects of that are not felt. People feel bruised, they feel hurt.'

Matthew Taylor, the campaign co- ordinator for the Liberal Democrats, said his party had made huge gains but 'we are not in the business of claiming this means we should be preparing for government. These are further building blocks in the establishment of our party and the growth of our party'.

Jack Straw, Labour environment spokesman, said that the Tories were now reduced to running one county council, one metropolitan borough, no Scottish regions and just 11 London boroughs.

'In contrast, Labour has outright control of nearly half of all these major local authorities. And, including councils where Labour is the largest party, Labour dominates in nearly two-thirds of these authorities.'