The Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition, suffered losses in local elections as the party took the blame for budget cuts being pushed through by the government.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s party lost 481 seats, after results from 188 of the 279 local councils contested across England yesterday were declared, while Cameron’s Conservatives gained 54 seats. The main opposition Labour Party gained 568 seats, softening the blow of losses in voting for the Scottish Parliament.
The vote marked the first nationwide electoral test for the coalition, which was formed after Cameron failed to score an outright victory over Labour’s Gordon Brown in last May’s general election. Liberal Democrat support has plummeted since joining the administration, which is imposing the deepest budget cuts since World War II to tackle the deficit. The party has also broken a promise to oppose increased college tuition fees.
“In those parts of the country -- Scotland, Wales and the great cities of the north -- where there are real anxieties about the deficit-reduction plans that we’re having to put in place, we’re getting the brunt of the blame,” Clegg told reporters in London this morning. “We’ve clearly had a bad result overnight and we now need to learn the lessons, get up, dust ourselves down and move on.”
Clegg’s party saw Labour win control of the northern city of Sheffield, where the Liberal Democrats had run a minority administration and where he has his House of Commons electoral district. They also lost control of Bristol, Hull and Stockport.
“I am absolutely committed to make this coalition government, that I believe is good for Britain, work for the full five years of this term,” Cameron told reporters in London. “The reason for having a coalition is as good today as it was a year ago.”
Labour is projected to take 37 percent of the vote across the U.K., the Conservatives 35 percent and the Liberal Democrats 15 percent, the BBC reported, citing its own calculations. When the same seats were last contested in 2007, the Conservatives took 40 percent of the vote as Labour, then in power for 10 years, slumped to 27 percent. The Liberal Democrats took 26 percent.
The chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, a Liberal Democrat, said the election results would not deflect his party from its work in government and the coalition parties would continue to work “effectively” together.
“Parties in government in the mid-term -- especially when we’re having to take difficult decisions -- do suffer in local elections,” Alexander told Sky News television. “The task for the whole coalition is to carry on, to stick to the task, to deliver on the plan set out, particularly to deliver on the plan for the economy.”
Business Secretary Vince Cable said there was “very strong support” for Clegg within the party. “We’ve taken the punishment,” he told the BBC, pointing out that the Conservatives had few council seats to lose in cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, where the Liberal Democrats lost seats.
The Conservatives told activists ahead of the votes to expect to lose as many as 1,100 seats among the 9,450 being contested and said Labour might gain between 1,300 and 1,800, according to a person familiar with the calculations.
“The news for Labour is pretty bad. So far Labour are only 2 percent ahead of the Tories,” Steven Fielding, head of the Centre for British Politics at Nottingham University, said in a phone interview. “In these elections, people tend to be more generous to opposition parties. Labour should be in the 40s.”
Fielding said that Cameron is “the winner of the night.” His main challenge is managing “the fallout in terms of the coalition. He may feel he can be a bit more generous” toward the Liberal Democrats.
A former Liberal Democrat lawmaker, Evan Harris, the vice-chairman of the party’s federal policy committee, said Clegg will need to change the way he deals with the Conservatives in the coalition and be less “collegiate” in his approach.
“He has got to deliver a strategy change, which is to do more than point out what we have achieved but also point out what bits of the program come from a Conservative philosophy that we do not share,” Harris told the Press Association newswire.
Foreign Secretary William Hague, a Conservative, said the Liberal Democrat decision to join the coalition “will be vindicated over time.”
“This is a one-year event in a five-year government,” he told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program. “If the government succeeds in pursuing its main policies, then the position of everyone in that government will be strong and will be recognized as such. We don’t see it as a trade-off between one party and another.”
The Liberal Democrats also lost seats in the Scottish Parliament, where First Minister Alex Salmond’s pro-independence Scottish National Party won the first overall majority since the 129-seat assembly was established in 1999. The result gives Salmond a second term and paves the way for a referendum on Scottish independence.
Labour just failed to gain a majority in the Welsh Assembly, winning 30 seats in the 60-member legislature, a gain of four seats. The party had been in coalition with the nationalist Plaid Cymru before the election.
Counting of votes from yesterday’s referendum on switching the system to elect House of Commons lawmakers from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote, a move that’s supported by Clegg and opposed by Cameron, will start at 4 p.m. today.
A YouGov Plc online poll conducted yesterday found support for preserving the current system had increased to 62 percent from 60 percent in its last pre-referendum opinion poll. YouGov questioned more than 3,000 people it had previously surveyed, it said in an e-mailed statement today.