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UK voters punish coalition in local elections

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2012-05-04

Partial results in the UK local elections Thursday saw Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives receive a bruising by a discontented electorate. The sole bright spot is a likely win for Conservative London mayor, Boris Johnson (photo).

AFP - British voters showed their anger against the government’s failure to revive the economy in local elections that saw Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives outflanked on the left by Labour and on the right by anti-European fringe party UKIP.

Cameron hopes a likely win for his party’s flamboyant London mayoral candidate, incumbent Boris Johnson, will deliver some positive headlines later on Friday. But the bigger story was the damage to his party’s electoral prospects at national level.

“People are hurting, people are suffering from the recession, people are suffering from a government that has raised taxes for them and cut taxes for millionaires. I think that’s what we saw last night,” said Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party.

Britain tipped into a double-dip recession last week, unwelcome news for a government that has staked its reputation on economic competence. Two years into a painful austerity drive, a recent cut in the income tax rate for high earners went down like a lead balloon with the hard-pressed millions.

Derided as “arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk” by a rebel from within their own ranks, Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne have struggled with a perception that they are out of touch with ordinary voters. This was reinforced by a row on the so-called “pasty tax”, a VAT hike that raised the price of pasties, a cheap and popular snack.

With results declared in 100 of the 181 councils being contested across the country, Labour had gained 475 new councillors while the Conservatives had lost 279 and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners had lost 133.

“UKIP are a massive threat”

UKIP, which stands for UK Independence Party, was contesting only a fraction of the total seats up for grabs but where it did field candidates, it averaged a record 14 percent of the vote.

This translated into just seven councillors because UKIP’s support is geographically scattered, which makes it hard for the party to win any individual ward.

However, UKIP’s surge in support was a clear threat to the Conservatives, who need to increase their popular support before the next national election, in 2015.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that UKIP is taking away votes from the Conservatives,” Philip Davies, a Conservative member of parliament, told Reuters.

“UKIP are a massive threat. They will undoubtedly stop us from winning seats that we would otherwise win (in 2015), and given how difficult it is for us to win an overall majority, every seat counts,” he added.

Conversely, UKIP reported that their good result would help them increase their presence in future elections.

“There’s been a whole slew of people saying that’s it, next time I’ll stand because we don’t have a UKIP candidate here,” a UKIP spokesman told Reuters.

At the last national parliamentary election, in 2010, the Conservatives fell short of an overall majority even though Labour were unpopular after 13 years in power. Cameron was forced to form an uneasy coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

“A machine that's not working”

Vociferous right-wingers within the Conservative Party have always maintained that Cameron should have done more to appeal to the party’s traditional supporters by attacking the European Union and talking tough on crime and immigration.

UKIP’s success at Thursday’s local elections is sure to embolden those Conservative right-wingers. Calls for Cameron to hold a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU will become more strident, as will opposition to Cameron’s decision to legalise gay marriage.

“So far he’s tended to treat his party like a general, a field-marshal. But he has to realise it’s not his party and listen to other voices in the party,” influential online Conservative activist Tim Montgomerie told Reuters.

“Until he shows he’s an electoral success he won’t command loyalty. The Conservative Party is an election-winning maching and right now it’s a machine that’s not working.”

Adding to Cameron’s woes, his cherished policy of strengthening local democracy by introducing elected mayors was heading for the rocks.

Cameron said on the eve of the polls that he wanted to see “a Boris in every city” but voters in Manchester, Nottingham, Bradford and Coventry voted no to the idea in referendums. Results in six other cities were due later.

The picture was equally bleak for the Liberal Democrats, whose support has collapsed since they went into government for the first time in 2010. The local election results in England were the worst in their history, with the number of Lib Dem councillors dipping below 3,000 for the first time.

“Obviously our future electoral prospects at local and European elections in the next two years will depend on whether there is real new growth across the United Kingdom,” deputy Lib Dem leader Simon Hughes told Reuters.

The Boris vs Ken show

Labour, which had previously struggled to capitalise on the coalition’s problems, was savouring the local election results. It captured 39 percent of that national vote, according to a BBC projection, versus 31 percent for the Conservatives and 16 percent for the Lib Dems.

Among other trophies, Labour seized control of Birmingham, Britain’s second-biggest city, and the Welsh capital Cardiff, previously the Lib Dems’ flagship council.

However there were doubts about whether these victories reflected genuine enthusiasm for Labour or rather deep dissatisfaction with the governing parties.

In Scotland, a traditional Labour stronghold where council election results were due later in the day, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) was expected to make gains. The SNP could seize control of Glasgow council in what would be a powerful symbol of Labour’s weakening grip north of the border.

In another mood-dampener for Miliband, whose leadership has been under constant fire since he took over the Labour Party in 2010, Conservative maverick Johnson looked poised to retain London City Hall in the most high-profile individual result.

The London race was a contest of big personalities between Johnson, an upper-class eccentric with a comic talent, and Ken Livingstone, Johnson’s Labour predecessor as mayor and a stalwart of the London left for three decades.

Date created : 2012-05-04


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