Conservatives lose ground in local British elections
May 3, 1996
Web posted at: 3:15 p.m. EDT (1715 GMT)
LONDON (CNN) -- The headlines said it all -- Prime Minister John Major's ruling Conservative Party was trounced in local elections throughout England by the Labour Party.
"Many of the people voting for us were coming straight from the Conservatives to Labour in a way they have not done before," said Labour Party leader Tony Blair.
The Conservatives, or Tories, lost approximately 600 of their 1,000 seats on over 150 municipal councils outside London that govern local matters in England. They now have fewer local councilors in Britain than the minority Liberal Democrats.
Labour won 45 percent of the vote in the most important electoral test before the general election. The Conservatives won 28 percent, up 3 percent from last year, but considered a serious defeat by political analysts.
"It's like they're standing in a hole that's 13 ladder rungs deep and there's a ladder to climb out of that hole and a year to climb it and they moved up one rung," said MORI Polling Chairman Robert Worcester. "They've got to climb like the Dickens if they're going to succeed at the next general election." (200K AIFF sound or 200K WAV sound)
Conservatives acknowledged the results were poor, but said they were an improvement on the "meltdown" seen in 1995 local council polls and not nearly as bad as some analysts predicted.
"We continue the steady recovery process we have been engaged in for 12 to 18 months. We are on our way back," said Conservative Party Chairman Brian Mawhinney. "The Labour Party has peaked too soon and has nowhere to go but down."
A general election to determine the country's leadership is just about one year away. Among the issues plaguing Major's government are the European Union, the mad cow scare in the British beef industry and tax increases.
But that is not all. There has increasingly been internal squabbling within Tory ranks, eroding public confidence in Major's ability to govern.
Major called this week's election results "disappointing," but not fatal.
"I think we are going to win the general election," Major said. "We will face some hard decisions when we get there, but we'll deal with them."
A slow, but steady improvement in Britain's economy is one achievement Major emphasizes, but that may not be enough to turn the tide for the Conservatives.
Analysts say the local elections are not as much votes of confidence for Labour Party as they are votes against the Conservatives and the way they run the country.
Major said the low turnout of around 30 percent meant many traditional Conservatives had stayed home as a protest. But he predicted they would return at a general election when improved economic conditions would be more apparent to voters.
Opposition parties said the town hall polls had underlined that the Conservatives, accused of broken electoral promises and arrogance after 17 years in office, were set to lose office.
No party has recovered from an opinion poll deficit of 20 points to win an election 12 months later. Labour needs a 4.3 percent swing to win the general election. The swing in Thursday's election compared with the 1992 general election was 12 percent.
CNN's Margaret Lowrie and Reuters contributed to this report.
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