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EDITIONS
Vote 99 Friday, 7 May, 1999, 18:39 GMT 19:39 UK
UK politics changed forever
The vote that changed British politics
By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

The political face of the UK has been changed forever after historic elections made devolution a reality and delivered the most significant mid-term verdict ever on a sitting government.

"Super Thursday" saw bitter disappointment for Tony Blair as Labour failed to realise its dream of winning outright majorities in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

Vote 99 Special Coverage
But he was buoyed up by local election results which, despite losing around 1,000 seats, still left Labour ahead of the opposition in the share of the vote - the first time a sitting government has managed such a showing for decades.

William Hague breathed a huge sigh of relief as the Tories notched up more than 1,200 gains in local elections - enough to lift the immediate threat to his leadership.

After a nightmare couple of weeks in the wake of the "dump Thatcherism" row, he desperately needed to see the first glimmerings of a Tory fightback to feel secure.

He can now enter the campaign for the looming European elections certain that, barring a disaster, he will probably lead the Tories into the next general election.

The Liberal Democrats, while losing a number of councils, snatched the "jewel" of Sheffield from Labour and, more significantly, ended up holding the balance of power in both the Welsh and Scottish assemblies where Labour will be forced to forge coalitions with them.

Sensational result

In Scotland, the SNP failed to make the breakthrough it was hoping for, but still emerged as a powerful opposition in the parliament with a significant swing in its favour from Labour.

Dafydd Wigley: Sensational result
Plaid Cymru, however, scored a sensational result in Wales, winning seats that had appeared impossible before the poll. Leader Dafydd Wigley hailed the result as a major breakthrough for his party.

Ironically, it was Plaid's showing the ensured Welsh Labour leader Alun Michael won a seat in the assembly and spared Labour the nightmare scenario of a third leadership ballot.

Under the form of proportional representation used, if Labour had done too well in the poll, Mr Michael would have failed to be selected as a "top up" candidate and a new contest between fallen ex-Welsh Secretary Ron Davies and rebel MP Rhodri Morgan would have been inevitable.

Tony Blair immediately claimed the results were "very good for us", and he declared his policy for devolution had strengthened the UK.

William Hague: Off the hook
Mr Hague welcomed his party's result, claiming it proved the Tories were now moving in the right direction and that Labour did not "walk on electoral water."

And Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown hailed his party's position in Wales and Scotland, insisting Labour would now be forced to make compromises.

His party will be demanding the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland and ministerial places in the new Welsh and Scottish cabinets as the price of their support in coalition governments.

Low turnout

One piece of bad news was the low turnout - below 30% in the local polls and only 45% in Wales, which many claim will undermine the credibility of the assembly from day one.

Only half the electorate voted to create the assembly in the first place and the apathy that has greeted its first election bodes ill for all the parties involved.

Labour leaders claimed it was the low turnout in Wales that had denied them the outright victory they had expected. Scotland managed a far better showing with a turnout approaching 60%.

The results will now lead to a minor cabinet reshuffle as both Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar and Welsh Secretary Alun Michael will resign their jobs to become their countries' first "prime ministers." Mr Blair will keep the reshuffle limited to those jobs.

There will also be a weekend of frantic negotiations as Labour and the Liberal Democrats attempt to forge workable coalitions in the new assemblies.

But, whatever the outcome, British politics has been changed forever as a result of these elections.

See also:

07 May 99 | News
07 May 99 | UK Politics
07 May 99 | UK Politics
07 May 99 | UK Politics
07 May 99 | News
12 May 99 | On Air
07 May 99 | News
Links to more Vote 99 stories are at the foot of the page.


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