Labour is set to lose council strongholds in elections

LABOUR will continue leading the coalition Executive after next May’s elections but faces a municipal meltdown in the council polls held on the same day, a survey has found.

The prediction of a disaster for Labour in the council elections is based on the party’s poor performance in local by-elections.

It no longer has overall control in former local authority strongholds like Fife and Aberdeen and could lose its majority in Edinburgh at the elections on 1 May.

According to the survey, carried out by the Press Association, a continued slippage in the party’s vote between now and May could leave Labour with only a handful of authorities in which it has outright control.

Labour performed less well than expected at the 1999 elections, achieving a majority on 15 councils - less than half - of the 32 Scottish local authorities.

By-election losses or defections in Aberdeen, Inverclyde, Fife, Renfrewshire, South Ayrshire and West Dunbartonshire have reduced this to nine.

The latest analysis of 23 by-elections this year shows Labour’s vote share dropping in each of the 12 seats it fought.

It lost four - two to Liberal Democrats in dramatic landslides at Aberdeen, and one each to the SNP and an independent in Fife.

Average vote share changes in five seats fought each time by all four major parties showed Labour’s vote falling by 12.4 per cent ; the SNP, by 0.3 per cent, and the Tories, by 5.6 per cent.

In contrast, the Liberal Democrats - boosted by twin triumphs at Aberdeen - saw their vote soar by 16.5 per cent.

According to trends in further contests, Labour’s majorities would disappear in East Ayrshire, Edinburgh and West Lothian, leaving the party in control of only six authorities.

The SNP, which would take four more councils in addition to the two it already has on a swing of less than 4 per cent, has an outside chance of matching Labour in the number of authorities controlled, the survey found.

The Tories would have a struggle to win any councils though the party has achieved notable by-election victories, gaining eight seats and losing none. Professor John Curtice, of the department of politics at Strathclyde University, agreed that Labour is likely to remain as the lead party in a coalition Executive after 1 May, 2003.

He said yesterday the prediction that Labour would be the largest party in the Scottish parliament was based on simple arithmetic and the effects of the current electoral system.

Prof Curtice said there was no doubt Labour had been losing seats "hand over fist" in local government by-elections.

However, he pointed out that these results may not necessarily lead to further setbacks for Labour next May, especially since the party did not perform particularly well in 1999.

Labour’s campaign co-ordinator, Patricia Ferguson, said it was " wholly wrong" to base a prediction for next year’s council elections on past by-election results. She insisted people would cast their votes on their local council’s ability to deliver vital public services.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP election co-ordinator, claimed the Nationalists were best positioned to take advantage of "Labour’s woes" and end its dominance of local government.

She said: "The analysis of the 65 council by-elections since May 1999 shows Labour has lost 16 seats and gained only one, with its share of the vote slumping by 9 per cent."

But the poll of polls also highlighted "a strong and consistent performance by the SNP across the country".

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