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As Blair prepares to leave office, his party
suffers election losses across the country
By Andrew Stevens, UK Editor
5 May 2007: In local and regional elections held across Great Britain on 3 May 2007, the country’s governing Labour Party suffered losses in most parts of England, Scotland and Wales. The most significant defeat for the party of departing Prime Minister Tony Blair occurred in Scotland, where the Scottish Nationalists became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament. In regional elections in Wales, Labour failed to win an overall majority in the Welsh Assembly and will have to enter a coalition if it hopes to continue to form the regional government. Meanwhile in English local elections, Labour lost control of nine local councils, while the Conservative Party gained 38, with the Liberal Democrats, the UK’s third party, losing five. There were no elections held in London.
The Conservative Party edged ahead to become the largest group on Birmingham city council for the first time in over two decades, but it remains under no overall control by any party following Labour's loss of the authority in 2003. Under new leader David Cameron the party has sought to portray itself as a modern mainstream centre-right party and victories in the inner cities are viewed as a sign of continuing broadening of its voter appeal. The party's electoral strategy for winning power at national level is based on the need to attract moderate voters from the centre ground and therefore take seats from both Labour and the opposition Liberal Democrats. However, David Cameron's Tories once again failed to take a single seat in Manchester and Liverpool and also failed to take Brighton, Bury and Crewe, key targets. Several Tory gains also saw England's first 18-year old councillors elected following a recent change in the law to lower the age of public office from 21.
The party also obtained a clean sweep through southern England, long regarded as its electoral base, having played on voter disenchantment with the national Labour government and rumours of the introduction of fortnightly waste collections by councils. While the Tories hailed their performance, arguing that their 41 per cent vote share would put it into power nationally if repeated in a general election, Labour's losses were not as severe as many had predicted, averting a bloodbath. In a number of regions it retained its presence on councils without sustaining major losses and gained seats on some city councils, as well as control of Leicester city council, though overall it came second nationally with only 27 per cent of the vote.
Following a night of comparatively poor results of the party, marked by few gains against the governing Labour party, the Liberal Democrats celebrated taking control of the Northern city of Hull, which has been beset by management crises for several years. The party also gained control of Rochdale metropolitan borough council, a suburb of Manchester. Its national share was 26 per cent, making it third-placed and renewing speculation about the future of lacklustre party leader Menzies Campbell.
The Green Party increased its small number of councillors with a group of 10 on Norwich city council in the East of England and doubled its presence in the coastal city of Brighton. Far right parties fared particularly badly in the polls, obtaining hardly any gains. The overall picture though the total number of councillors for each party will not affect the composition of the Local Government Association, which is currently Conservative led.
Among the three directly elected mayors facing their first re-election contests, all as independents, Middlesbrough's Ray Mallon was returned on the first ballot with 58 per cent of votes, beating his principal opponent from the Liberal Democrats. Though predicted to lose its majority on the council, Labour retained its lion's share of councillors in the Teesside town. In the Midlands former mining town of Mansfield, independent mayor Tony Egginton defeated the town's sitting Labour Member of Parliament to obtain a second term, though the poll went to a run-off as neither candidate obtained more than 50 per cent of first preference votes. Egginton faces an ethics probe however following an allegation made during the campaign over a conflict of interest arising from a land deal. Problems with the electronic counting equipment in the town of Bedford in the East of England delayed the announcement of the mayoral poll, where independent Frank Branston was re-elected.
In the elections for the Welsh Assembly, Labour retained its position as the largest party but with an insufficient number of seats to form a government. As a result it will most likely form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru were the only party to increase their presence in the assembly at Cardiff. The Conservatives were said to be disappointed to fail to secure second place in the assembly, a key goal for the revival of its fortunes following years in the political wilderness outside of its heartlands in Southern England. Wales also got its first Asian assembly member, a Welsh nationalist.
The third set of elections for the Scottish Parliament saw an historic defeat for Labour as the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) emerged as the largest party after a lengthy count beset by ballot counting complications. The SNP have one member (MSP) more than the Labour Party, who suffered the loss of four seats. Observers are now focusing on the what shape the coalition in the Scottish Executive will take, which could have further implications for Scottish local government, especially around local taxation and the number of councils. The elections also saw Scotland's first Muslim MSP and first MSP from an Asian background, returned for the SNP.
In the Scottish local elections, held for the first time under the proportional single transferable vote system demanded by the Liberal Democrats as the price for entering coalition after the last elections, most councils went from being governed by a majority party to no overall control, with the exception of Glasgow and North Lanarkshire. Labour lost control of a significant number of councils under the new system, most significantly the Scottish capital Edinburgh.
British local elections to be overshadowed
by departure of unpopular Prime Minister
12 April 2007: The last set of local polls across Britain before Tony Blair makes his scheduled exit as Prime Minister are being held on 3 May 2007 against a backdrop of elections to devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales and with a new electoral system for Scottish councils. With gains predicted for the Conservative Party as well as three directly elected mayors standing for re-election after first terms, the election results will be watched closely by those seeking a definitive date for the troubled Prime Minister departure.
In England, 10,500 seats will be contested in 312 local authorities at district and unitary (single tier) levels, either on an all-out or one thirds basis, depending on each council’s constitution. Voters in the six former metropolitan counties (ie. big cities) will be voting for one third of the council while in other single tier areas 25 councils will be electing the whole council with a further 20 electing one third of members. In the mostly rural district council areas, 153 will be elected across the whole council with the remaining 78 electing one third.
Of all the council elections, over half are taking place in just three of the eight English regions outside of London the East of England, South East and South West. A number of local councils could also be going to the polls for the very last time as the Department of Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on 16 bids for unitary status in mostly rural two-tier areas of England, which if successful would see the merger of a number of county and district councils in 2009.
In their pitches to the electorate when campaigning began in early April, both the Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties sought to manage expectations of poll results, with Labour arguing mid-term blues and the Liberal Democrats claiming their previous gains leave little left to be had. As the national opposition, the Conservative Party can expect to continue their recent good performance in council polls, though two parties of the far right, the British National Party and the UK Independence Party have announced a large increase in the numbers of candidates they are fielding this time round, both hoping for gains, particularly in rural areas. The Conservatives also cautioned that they are not likely to make many gains in Northern England, still considered a no-go area for the party. However, in a number of council areas, three party contests are not possible as all three main parties find it hard to recruit candidates in councils where they traditionally do not poll well.
In the Scottish Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections, Labour are fighting to retain control of the devolved governments at Edinburgh and Cardiff, with the Labour-led coalition in the Scottish Executive under threat from a resurgent Scottish Nationalist Party and the minority Labour government in the Welsh Assembly also endangered and in need of other party support.
In the third set of devolved elections since the introduction of devolution to Scotland and Wales in 1999, local government is at the fore, with Scottish parties at loggerheads over the future of local taxation and the need for service devolution to Scotland’s 32 local councils and the prospect of the Welsh Assembly assuming overall responsibility for Wales’ 22 local councils after the election. It is likely that Scotland’s local government map may be redrawn after the election, particularly if Labour hangs on to power, with pressure on its 32 unitary councils to consider mergers. The Scottish local elections are also notable for being the first to be held under the proportional Single Transferable Vote system (also used in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic), which was introduced by Labour at the behest of the Liberal Democrats as part of the coalition deal after the last elections. The new system is likely to alter political control of councils across Scotland, where Labour has traditionally done well but is likely to lose control to other parties.
The various elections across Britain are the first to be held under the new Electoral Administration Act, which lowered the age of public office from 21 to 18 and introduced new voting security measures, which mean that results are now not likely to be known until the day after polling. Three directly elected mayor posts (out of 12) in England will be contested on 3 May, in Bedford, Mansfield and Middlesbrough. In all three councils the incumbents are independents, all elected in 2002 against spirited campaigns by the main parties. Of the three, the only mayor of a unitary council, Middlesbrough, is best known Ray Mallon.
In an historic victory, the Scottish Nationalists became the largest party inthe Scotttish parliament
Also by Andrew Stevens
History and many post-war reforms shape local government in the UK
There are a total of 468 local authorities in the United Kingdom. In Scotland, Wales and urban England, with the exception of London, single-tier unitary authorities provide all local services, whereas non-metropolitan England is served by a two-tier system split between district and county councils.
Local government in the United Kingdom is a settled feature of the constitutional architecture and has long acted as an agency of the state in order to fulfil many of the functions required by central government to ameliorate social problems throughout the years. The need for a comprehensive system of local authorities arose alongside the expansion in the population of urban centres around the time of the Industrial Revolution, with the old administrative units of what constituted a ‘local state’ unable to cope with the demands placed on them, such as disease, sanitation problems, squalor and unemployment. From 1835 onwards, with the creation of municipal corporations in urban areas, the history of British local government became a legislative one. In 1888, another Act brought into being the two-tier system of counties and boroughs that still exists in most non-metropolitan areas to this day.
During the 1960s, a review established by the Labour government of Harold Wilson recommended the introduction of a unitary pattern of local government across England, though the party’s exit from government in the 1970 election prevented its introduction. The Conservatives had faced internal opposition to the loss of county councils and the government indicated early on that it preferred an evolutionary approach by introducing a comprehensive two-tier system of counties and districts from 1974 in the majority of England and Wales, and metropolitan counties and metropolitan districts in six urban areas of large population density. The metropolitan counties and the Greater London Council were then abolished in 1986, with a further round of unitary local reorganisation taking place in 1996-98. More