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Blair sorry over poll outcome

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British vote is the biggest test of public opinion ahead of the next general election.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has apologized to Labour Party councillors who lost in local elections, acknowledging the shadow cast by Iraq.

Britons opposed to the war against Iraq handed Blair a stinging rebuff in the elections, with the ruling Labour Party coming third behind the main opposition parties.

"I'd like to say I'm sorry to the (local) councillors who've lost their seats," Blair told reporters in Washington before heading back to the UK.

"I think Iraq has been a shadow over our support."

But there was consolation for Blair with the reelection of Labour's Ken Livingstone as London's mayor. He won 828,380 first and second preference votes, ahead of Conservative candidate Steven Norris with 667,178 votes.

Government ministers and analysts agreed the Iraq war and violence since had taken its toll, with election returns raising new doubts about Blair's future as British PM in his seventh year in power.

"It's a bad night for us, but it's not meltdown," Blair's Home Secretary David Blunkett said Friday. "On Iraq, we are very clear about that -- it has damaged us."

"There is clearly a very strong protest vote," cabinet minister Tessa Jowell told BBC television.

The results from Thursday's local council polls -- to be followed European Parliament results on Sunday -- were bad news for Britain's Labour government.

By Friday evening, with results in from 144 of the 166 contested councils, Labour had lost a net 388 seats and control of seven councils, including its northern strongholds of Newcastle and Leeds.

Projections by the BBC put Labour's vote share at 26 percent, way behind the opposition Conservatives on 38 percent. The Liberal Democrats, who opposed the Iraq war, had 30 percent. If borne out by results, it will be the worst showing in recent memory for Labour.

But the opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats failed to score the wholesale successes seen as needed to build momentum to topple Labour in the next parliamentary election.

Most analysts still expect him to take Labour to a third general election victory in 2005 despite the damage from Iraq and Blair's alliance with U.S. President George W. Bush.

Analysts cautioned that regional and European elections -- often used to kick the government of the day -- tend to have little bearing on the next general election.

"An awful night for Labour, really seriously dreadful," said Anthony King, professor of government at Essex University.

"But if the Conservatives were on a roll they ought to be at 40 percent or above."

The Conservatives' showing was dented by their support for war in Iraq and a surge by the hitherto marginal UK Independence Party, which advocates withdrawal from the European Union.

The UKIP picked up its first ever council seats, in the central town of Derby and the northern town of Hull.

"People are absolutely fed up of Europe. This is why they have given us their support," said Hull's UKIP councilor John Cornforth.

A poll for the European Parliament said UKIP would win up to 12 of 78 British seats when results for that poll are declared on Sunday night.

'No mood to hand over'

Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, benefited from its anti-war stance and traditional strong showing in local councils.

Blair, in power since 1997, had been universally predicted to fare badly, but has repeated in recent days that he is in no mood to hand over the reins to a party successor.

Blair's public trust ratings have plunged over the last year, but with a new U.N. resolution agreed on Iraq, conferring international legitimacy to a new interim government from June 30, Blair's aides are quietly hoping they can move on from a saga that has battered the government.

In 1999, at the last European polls, the Conservatives won 36 percent of the vote to Labour's 28, but were thrashed at the general election two years later.

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