Voters Punish Gordon Brown: Conservatives Make Big Gains in British Local Elections

The Labour Party has had its worst showing in British local elections in 40 years. The result is seen as a damning response to Prime Minister Gordon Brown's first year in office and marks the resurgence of the Conservatives.

Voters in England and Wales have punished British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, giving the Labour Party their worst local election showing in 40 years.

After two-thirds of the local council results had been counted, BBC forecasts on Friday predicted 44 percent for the Conservatives with Labour clocking up a mere 24 percent. The BBC is predicting the centrist Liberal Democrats will get 25 percent, putting Labour into a rare third place. More than 4,000 seats on 159 councils were up for grabs in Thursday's local elections. Political scientist John Curtice of Strathclyde University told the BBC that Labour's final result could be as bad as the "worst possible outcome" predicted ahead of the election.

The vote was Brown's first electoral test since he took over from Tony Blair in June 2007, and the result is an unambiguous verdict on Brown's first year in office. Analysts say voters were annoyed with Brown's controversial decision to abolish the 10-percent tax bracket for low earners. The move triggered a revolt within the Labour Party, which forced Brown to make a humiliating U-turn on the policy. Brown has also been hampered by a series of gaffes and public perception of him as being indecisive.

Labour Party officials tried to put a brave spin on the result, claiming they reflected voter unease about the downturn in the UK economy caused by the global financial crisis. Deputy leader Harriet Harman told the BBC the results were "very disappointing," adding: "We recognize the difficult economic context, with people feeling the pinch."

Labour's chief whip Geoff Hoon, who is responsible for managing the party members in the parliament, was more upbeat, saying: "There's no crisis. This isn't something that's going to affect the fundamental stability of the government."

Nevertheless, the result is a major blow for the party and does not bode well for Labour's chances in the next general election, due in 2010 at the latest.

Meanwhile the Conservatives were gloating over their victory. "The ship of state is heading towards the rock," said Conservative local government spokesman Eric Pickles, adding that the result would encourage Brown to put off a general election as long as possible.

Conservative leader David Cameron said Friday that the result was a positive vote for the Conservatives, rather than just an anti-Labour vote, saying it was a "big moment" for the party.

The much-anticipated election for London mayor was also held Thursday. Counting began on Friday morning and is not expected to be completed until Friday evening. Many pollsters were predicting a victory for Conservative candidate Boris Johnson over the Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone. The result will also be seen as a reflection of the two parties' general popularity, with a Johnson victory giving a further boost to the Conservatives.

dgs/ap/reuters

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