'Neglected' core voters of Oldham send a warning

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Indy Politics

Oldham - one of Labour's traditional heartland areas - sent a stern warning to the party on Thursday when it lost control of the council for the first time in 20 years.

Jubilant Liberal Democrats easily won the three required seats from Labour after concentrating their campaign on the party's most vulnerable wards. Apart from a brief period six years ago when there was a hung council, Labour had held the Greater Manchester authority since 1980 when it won it from the Tories.

Labour lost six seats, five to the Liberal Democrats and one to the Tories, leaving the Liberal Democrats with a two-strong majority.

The scale of the defeat was underlined by the fate of John Battye, council leader for the past 15 years, who lost his Failsworth East ward.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "This is a fantastic result which shows the inroads Liberal Democrats are making into Labour's heartlands."

Oldham is the latest in a string of Liberal Democrat successes in the North. In last year's elections, the party gained control of Sheffield, where David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, used to be council leader. They managed to increase their majority by two seats in Thursday's poll.

The Liberal Democrats strengthened their hold on Liverpool City Council, gaining a further 10 wards. They also gained five seats in Leeds and Hartlepool, Peter Mandelson's constituency, where Labour lost overall control.

Labour backbenchers such as Peter Kilfoyle, who resigned as a minister to speak up for the party's core vote, have warned the leadership that there was a strong feeling inthe North that the Government was neglecting its heartlands

In Oldham, Mr Battye blamed the disappointing result on Tory signs of a recovery and a mid-term disillusionment with the Government.

"We never anticipated holding on in Oldham three years into a Labour government. In the 1970s we were decimated half way through."

Labour strategists had privately braced themselves for the loss of the council, admitting that winning such stronghold was a crucial gain for the Liberal Democrats in the run-up to the next general election.

The political make-up ofthe council has been changing for a while, with one councillor recently defecting from Labour to the Greens. Liberal Democrats said there had also been strong personal opposition to Mr Battye.