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Friday, 8 May, 1998, 10:02 GMT 11:02 UK
Voters leave parties guessing
Tony and Cherie Blair
Early voters, Tony Blair and his wife Cherie at the polls
By BBC News online's Nick Assinder.

Half-hearted voters have refused to hand any party a resounding victory in local elections fought across England on Thursday night.

An historically low turnout of around 26% - and as low as 17% in some areas - saw Labour making some gains in London and avoiding serious losses from disgruntled voters.

The Tories also gained some seats, notably in their London strongholds, but failed to show any signs of the sort of recovery needed to revitalise the battle-scarred troops.

And the Liberal Democrats, despite a dramatic victory in Liverpool, lost control of eight other councils, including the Isle of Wight.

The projected share of the vote put Labour on 38% - 4% down on its UK general election figure - the Tories on 32% compared to 31% and the Liberal Democrats on 25% compared to 16%.

The 'stay at home' factor

The overwhelming factor in the polls, which saw 20 million people eligible to vote for more than 4,000 councillors, was apathy. Voters were either suffering a bout of election overload or felt Labour's commanding poll lead made the results inevitable.

And that was part of the problem for Tony Blair who had feared complacency amongst his supporters and spent much of the election campaign urging them to get out and vote.

His greatest victories came in London where a parallel referendum on the creation of an elected mayor won the overwhelming support of nearly 80% of the voters.

Labour also took back control of Brent which the Tories had been hoping to snatch.

No clear winner

The inconclusive showing left all three parties claiming victory, with some justification.

Labour was delighted that it bucked the normal trend for a government to suffer at the hands of disgruntled voters in local polls and had ended the day with slightly more councils than it had in 1994 - the last time these councils were contested.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott declared: "If you look at the vote and compare it to 1994, we are basically the same. That is remarkable after 12 months in government."

Tory vice chairman Alan Duncan insisted the result showed the party was starting the long haul back to popularity.

"This was a modest advance. We have seen the Labour Party going back a bit. We are making a slow, gradual but steady advance," he said.

And he pointed to the flagship council of Wandsworth where the party increased its number of seats to an all-time record.

Paddy Ashdown was delighted at the Liberal Democrats' result in Liverpool and claimed the Tories were in serious trouble because their showing was worse than in 1990 when they introduced the poll tax.

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