Tories' capital showing lifts hopes in marginals

The Tories made a big recovery in the capital as voters handed a second snub to Labour in the elections for the Greater London Assembly.

The Conservatives, who saw support in the capital shrink drastically at the last general election, exceeded their most optimistic expectations by winning the same share of seats as Labour. Both parties gained nine seats in the 25-strong Assembly, with the Liberal Democrats winning four and the Green Party three.

The Tories' strong performance in the crucial battleground of London, both in the mayoral and the Assembly poll, means that they have a realistic chance of winning important marginal seats in the next general election.

Labour strategists had hoped that the party would gain a 40 per cent share of vote, but in reality it was just 30.3 per cent. The Tories came second with 28 per cent, the Liberal Democrats won 14.8 per cent and the Greens received 11.1 per cent.

Turn-out was 33.65 per cent. The number of people who voted was comparable to levels in ordinary local elections, but lower than the 34.13 per cent turn-out in the May 1998 referendum, when London voted in favour of having a mayor.

Labour strategists blamed the disappointing result on the low turn-out, but privately admitted that accusations of "control freakery" and public attention on divisions within the party over Ken Livingstone had not helped.

It is a blow to the party because London has been dominated by Labour for the past two decades. After the near wipe-out in the 1997 general election, the Tories have only 11 seats at the Commons out of 74 London constituencies.

Steven Norris, the Tory mayoral candidate, said his party had won the popular vote in London if both the mayoral and the Assembly elections were taken into account. "I am very proud of the fact that we campaigned on the basis of openness, inclusivity, fairness, tolerance and reaching out to every Londoner," Mr Norris said. "I'm proud of the fact that many people, including many thousands of people who have never voted Tory before, actively voted for me."

Voting figures showed that Labour strongholds were the worst hit by voter apathy. In Tory outer London, 38 per cent came out to vote in the south-west constituency, compared with 33 per cent in Lambeth and Southwark.

Voters' disapproval of the Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, did not stop with his humiliating defeat for the mayor's job. The Tories also won Barnet and Camden, part of his own Commons constituency.

The Conservatives victory in Ealing and Hillingdon will also prompt fears by many Labour MPs holding marginal seats in the area.

However, the local Labour agent pointed out that there were 10,962 rejected ballots out of a total of 130,792, amounting to 8.4 per cent and a bigger share than the Tory majority.

Across London, a total of almost 130,000 fewer votes were cast in the 14 constituency polls than in the mayoral ballot, suggesting that many only voted for a mayoral candidate.

The Liberal Democrats failed to make convincing inroads into the capital despite proportional representation, under which smaller parties benefit.

The party lost with a clear margin to the Tories in the south-west of the city, where it usually has its strongholds in areas such as Kingston and Richmond.

The Green Party saw its best result since the European elections in 1989 and their three Assembly members now join MEP Jean Lambert as its only elected representatives.

Their strong showing was aided by the party's commitment to work with Mr Livingstone as mayor. Darren Johnson, one of the party's candidates, has even been tipped as a possible deputy mayor.

Government sources said ministers were privately relieved that they had adopted a 5 per cent hurdle in the Assembly, because the British National Party gained 2.87 per cent of the vote and could have secured a seat otherwise.

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