Labour takes power across country – and Miliband tightens grip on party

Leader's position secure after difficult spell in charge as more than 800 council seats are won

Labour yesterday made significant electoral gains across the country, outperforming expectations and shoring up Ed Miliband's position as leader.

The party's success also raised the tantalising prospect among activists that the next general election might be won.

Labour made inroads in the Conservative heartlands of southern England and cemented gains in the northern cities which the Tories need to win to achieve an overall majority at the next election. With just one authority left to declare, Labour had won control of 32 councils and racked up 823 new councillors. Before the elections most independent experts had predicted the party would win at most 700 seats.

The party needed just four gains to take control of Birmingham City Council, but claimed half of the 40 seats being contested, including some in areas expected to stay Tory.

It also made significant gains in the south of England, winning control of Southampton, Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Plymouth councils, which went some way to ending Labour's "southern discomfort".

They also won in the Essex bellwether seats of Thurrock and Harlow – suggesting working-class southern voters may be finally returning to the party.

In the North, Labour gained control of councils in Burnley, Chorley and Rossendale – all areas where the Tories need to do well at the general election if they are to have any hope of becoming the sole party of government. Labour also won control of Cardiff. In Scotland the party prevented the SNP taking control of Glasgow City Council – seen as a key test of resilience north of the border.

The one blemish, was in Bradford where Respect unseated the Labour leader and took five seats.

Mr Miliband was also hit with an egg during a walkabout in Southampton. In Birmingham, Mr Miliband, flanked by jubilant supporters, said the party was determined to "repay that trust" of the electorate. "The most important thing is not to think about politicians, but to think about people," he said.

"People who are struggling, people who are hurting, people who are finding they can't make ends meet, people who are worried about their sons and daughters getting work.

"It's them that Labour councils, Labour councillors, are going to be spending their time in the coming days, weeks and months working for."

Mr Miliband will be watching the results of this Sunday's Presidential result in France carefully. If, as expected, François Hollande wins, Labour will hope the message that Britain needs an alternative to austerity will gain increasing traction with voters. It will also serve to highlight that a leader, widely regarded as uncharismatic, can still be elected if policies are in tune with the public mood. Yesterday's results were in marked contrast to last year's local elections when Labour failed to take key target seats in the South.

But the party was helped by two months of negative headlines for the Government over taxes on pensioners, petrol shortages and Tory dealings with News Corp over BSkyB. The shadow Chancellor Ed Balls struck a cautious note when he suggested the party still had much to do to regain the trust of the voters. "It shows us there is still a challenge there, we have got to keep working hard," he said. "There is a task still for us, but it's definitely made easier by what is quite a seismic failure over the last month or two from David Cameron and George Osborne and I can see why Conservative MPs are worried about that now."

But privately Labour sources were jubilant.

Huge Labour gains leave Coalition with identity crisis
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MPs turn fire on Cameron after dismal showing
Labour takes power across the country – and Miliband tightens grip on his party
Leading article: A good result, but Labour must beware a false dawn
Steve Richards: Labour (and Ed Miliband) are no longer doomed
Andrew Grice: Bruised and battered, Clegg will struggle to sell Coalition relaunch
Professor John Curtice: Labour's making progress, but it's still some way from No 10
Chris Bryant: The naked and the dead – just a couple of the things you meet while canvassing
Galloway's Respect wins in Bradford again
'Chipping Norton set' desert the Tories
Cities reject Cameron's dream of mayors for all
Salmond setback as Scots nationalists fail in Glasgow

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