Labour leaders admitted yesterday that voters were losing patience with the Government after the party lost more than 550 seats in the local authority elections in England.
William Hague trumpeted Tory gains of almost 600 seats as a sign his party was heading back to power at Westminster, and Labour ministers said voters anxious to see the Government deliver its pledges had delivered a "wake-up call".
Labour showed humility in defeat, saying the town hall results were disappointing. A senior party spokesman acknowledged it was taking time to solve the country's problems, but said the Government was on a "long-term mission" to tackle them.
"We are the first to say that, although we have done a lot, we have a lot more to do," he said. "But we have had the courage to set a long-term course and to take the decisions to get there - and we will."
Margaret Beckett, the leader of the Commons, acknowledged people wanted to see more improvements. "That is a message we take on board. They feel we haven't done enough and haven't done it fast enough and that is something we understand and we will have to try harder."
There was evidence that Labour was punished in the West Midlands because of the fears of big job losses at the Rover plant in Longbridge. Labour lost control in Walsall, and the Tories made advances in Birmingham, regaining their traditional Solihull stronghold.
Although Labour's poor showing will revive the debate on whether the Government is failing the party's heartlands, ministers were relieved that Labour held power in Trafford and parts of the North-east.
The Tories gained control of 16 councils, ousting Labour in Amber Valley, Great Yarmouth, Plymouth and Rossendale. They also won Calderdale, Cherwell, Eastbourne, Hyndburn, Malvern Hills, Reigate & Banstead, Rushmoor, Solihull, Southend-on-Sea, Stratford-upon-Avon, Tandridge, Torbay and West Oxfordshire, where no party had overall control before. The Conservatives lost Wokingham, now a "hung "council.
Labour gained Welwyn Hatfield but lost Basildon, Bradford, Burnley, Chorley, Hartlepool, Oxford, Portsmouth, Swindon, Walsall and Worcester. The Liberal Democrats gained Oldham and Cambridge but lost Herefordshire, Stockport and Windsor & Maidenhead Royal.
Although the Liberal Democrats lost 20 seats overall, the party claimed it had won its biggest-ever share of the town hall vote at 28 per cent. Labour's share was estimated at 29 per cent, with the Tories on 37 per cent. There was a 10 per cent swing to the Tories from the last general election.
Mr Hague called the results "sensational" and claimed Labour had been "hammered across the country". He added: "We have begun the revival of our party, people are coming back to the Conservatives.The Conservative Party can win again, the Conservative Party must win again and that's what we are going to do at the next general election."
But a study suggested that the Tory vote might not translate into a general election victory. Professor Michael Thrasher, of Plymouth University, said Labour would have won more parliamentary seats because the party's vote held up better in the marginal seats that will decide the general election than in its heartlands. He said Labour would win 303 seats, the Tories 266 and the Liberal Democrats 60.
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