Labour fires first in shires campaign: The electioneering has begun in the run-up to 47 county council polls. Ngaio Crequer reports

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THE LABOUR Party yesterday launched its campaign for the county council elections by claiming that Labour councils' services cost less and were better.

But John Major was cheered at Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons when he read out the names of Labour local authorities that had levied the highest council tax in band C. Tory MPs, showing relief at the Government victory on the coal closures, chanted 'Labour' when he listed the councils.

Earlier, Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman, said that Labour would be standing on its record in the May elections. 'On education, social services, job creation and crime, Labour is doing better. We are comparing that record with the disastrous record of the Conservatives.'

He said that average council tax bills in Labour-controlled shires would be pounds 6 a year lower than for Conservative-controlled counties. Across the country, people in Labour-controlled councils would pay pounds 14 less, while under Labour councils, people had twice as much a chance of getting a nursery place.

Mr Straw said Labour would make several changes to the council tax, which comes into force tomorrow. Labour was in favour of the property element of the tax, but not the tax on individuals. Labour would widen the number of bands and relate them more directly to property values and people's ability to pay.

Voters will elect 47 county councils in England and Wales on 6 May. Labour hopes to prise Warwickshire and Northamptonshire from the Tories and regain overall control in Avon, as well as retaining ground it won in 1989. Labour controls 13 of the 47 county councils.

Margaret Beckett, deputy leader of the Labour Party, said at the campaign launch that since the general election, the Conservatives had 'turned incompetence into an art form and their election pledges on their heads - a betrayal on an unprecedented scale'.

Instead of tax cuts there had been tax increases, and the Government had spent pounds 14bn on the poll tax and pounds 27bn to keep people on the dole, she said.

(Photograph omitted)