Conservatives Suffer Record Losses in Local Elections
LONDON (AP) _ John Major’s governing Conservative Party has been nearly obliterated in local elections, reduced to controlling a handful of town halls in England and routed in Wales.
The left-of-center Labor Party had its best showing in 30 years, winning nearly 50 percent of the vote in Thursday’s local elections, which were the Conservatives’ worst electoral disaster ever.
The mauling increased speculation that dissident Conservatives will challenge Major for the party leadership, but he said he was determined to lead the party into the next national election.
``I don’t make excuses. We have thus far _ thus far _ failed to persuade people that the long-term policies I am following are right for the country,″ he said, speaking to reporters today outside his 10 Downing St. office.
Major must hold national elections within two years, which could break the Conservatives’ 16-year hold on power.
Demoralized Conservative local politicians said the results were a protest vote against the central government, which has reached a record low in opinion polls largely because of its failure to improve the economy.
``People in this country have been crying out for a sensible, mainstream alternative to the Conservatives, and now they have got one,″ declared Tony Blair, Labor’s 41-year-old new leader who has wooed millions of middle-class voters from the Conservatives.
With results declared from 327 of the 346 councils at stake in England and Wales, Labor controlled 147 councils, the Conservatives just eight, and the centrist Liberal Democrats 43. Among the rest, no party had overall control.
Labor had gained control of 35 new councils and nearly 1,500 seats, while the Conservatives lost 53 councils and 1,700 seats.
In Wales, the Conservatives lost their last bastion, Monmouthshire, making it almost certain they will control no local authorities there.
On the 67-member authority in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, the Conservatives held just one seat.
The Conservatives were wiped out in local elections in Scotland last month, losing both to Labor and Scottish nationalists.
The British Broadcasting Corp. predicted Labor would finish with 47 percent of the vote, the Conservatives with a record low of 24 percent, and the centrist Liberal Democrats 23 percent.
Laborites sprayed champagne around their party headquarters in southeast London, and somber Conservative leaders acknowledged what Environment Secretary John Gummer, the Cabinet official in charge of local government issues, called ``a very bad night.″
``The results are unsurprising,″ said Melvyn Howell, Conservative leader in Tunbridge Wells, a prosperous district 30 miles from London. No party now controls the Tunbridge Wells council.
Opinion polls, which put the government’s popularity at a record low, show many voters don’t believe the economy is getting better, regard the Conservatives as sleazy and consider the Labor Party safe to support.
Labor notched up gains throughout the south, including in Hertfordshire and Essex, counties near London where blue-collar workers were vital to helping Margaret Thatcher, Major’s predecessor, to successive victories in the 80s.
There were no elections this year in London.
``The Conservatives aren’t in a hole, they’re in an enormous bomb crater,″ said Anthony King, professor of government at Essex University. ``The devastation is everywhere.″
Norman Fowler, a former Conservative Party chairman, said that unless the party _ split over closer ties with the European Union _ united ``the outlook is bleak.″
Party rules permit leadership elections in November.