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banner Friday, 28 April, 2000, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK
Leaders prepare for polls battle

Tony Blair seeking every vote in local polls
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Despite his massive lead in the opinion polls, Tony Blair is bracing himself for what could be this Labour government's greatest electoral setback yet on May 4.

Not only is he facing the prospect of Ken Livingstone trouncing Labour candidate Frank Dobson in the contest to become London mayor but he is also expecting major losses in councils across England.

Just three days after the third anniversary of Labour's landslide election victory, more than 3,000 councillors will be elected in 152 councils in what could be the last major test of public opinion before the next general election.

Turnout will be an issue, as it was in last year's local and European elections where voters stayed at home in droves.

And all eyes will be on Labour "heartland" areas in the 36 metropolitan district councils such as Oldham, Birmingham and Trafford.

Labour is hampered by the fact that it is starting from a high point after the last similar polls in May 1996 saw what was left of the Tory presence in local councils slashed in half.

William Hague could see a revival
And that had followed one of the Tories worst ever local performances in 1995 when they lost almost 2,000 seats.

That should ensure William Hague will preside over a significant boost to Tory fortunes.

Good showing

But it is not just Tony Blair who will be affected by the results on May 4. The two other major parties also have a huge amount at stake.

Mr Hague needs a good showing to shore up his leadership and inject a bit of heart into his troops while Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy also needs to avert a collapse in his party's support.

But the most significant effect will almost certainly be on Mr Blair and New Labour.

The government's extended honeymoon period is well and truly over and it is facing mounting attacks from voters and, most importantly, its own supporters.

There are real fears over the state of the NHS and education, and issues like the strength of sterling, the Rover crisis and rows over asylum seekers and law and order have all hit the government's standing.

Former minister Peter Kilfoyle resigned from the government so he could press ministers to concentrate more on Labour's core supporters whom, he claims, are being ignored in the rush to appeal to the middle classes.

And there are growing signs that disillusioned traditional Labour voters will simply refuse to come out and vote.

The spin doctors are already using the 1996 result to talk down Labour's likely performance and underline the fact that the party is bound to lose a large number of seats.

Danger territory

And Mr Blair could probably brush off 300 losses claiming that the Tories have failed to make a significant come back during the government's mid-term period - traditionally a low point for all administrations.

But if, as many fear, the losses get closer to the 500 mark or above then he will be in real trouble.

Such a result would hammer home the message that the gloss has come off the government and voters want to give Mr Blair and his team a serious kicking.

That in turn will have a direct effect on the date of the next general election with the prime minister weighing up the pros and cons of going to the country early next summer as expected, or delaying a few months for a revival of his fortunes.

The results will also have a profound effect on Mr Hague who, despite opposing a government that has finally hit troubled waters, has failed to significantly boost his party's standing.

The Tories good showing in last year's Euro and local polls put paid to talk of a leadership challenge but he needs a good result to underpin his position.

Many expect the Tories to pick up around 300 to 400 seats and that would be seen as a reasonable, if not stunning result.

No charisma

But what Mr Hague would dearly love is to break through the 400 seat barrier which would allow him to claim that his party is firmly on the road to recovery.

If his party fails to win more than around 200 seats then he will be in serious trouble and talk of a pre-election leadership challenge might revive.

Charles Kennedy needs to stop slide
Mr Kennedy will also be looking to the results as an indication of his party's future and likely performance in the general election.

He has been accused of failing to bring any charisma to the leadership and many fear that once the general election campaign is under way support will start ebbing away from the Lib Dems back to the Tories.

He has already moved to limit that damage by backing away from the informal alliance with Labour forged by his predecessor Paddy Ashdown.

Supporters fear that if voters are looking to protest at the government's performance they are unlikely to turn to a party that is seen as being in league with Mr Blair.

Despite winning high profile councils like Sheffield and Liverpool they have now been overtaken by the Conservatives as second largest party in local government.

Mr Kennedy will be hoping that disillusion with Labour will play into his hands and boost his performance but he is unlikely to see major gains in the polls.

His party may well lose up to 100 seats which would be bad, but not catastrophic news.

Any more than this, however, and serious questions will start being raised about his leadership and the future direction of the party.

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See also:

27 Apr 00 | Talking Point
Local elections: Do they matter?
27 Apr 00 | London Mayor
Voting starts as poll buoys Livingstone
25 Apr 00 | Local elections
Shadow boxing at the locals
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