London (CNSNews.com) - British Prime Minister Tony Blair had little to celebrate Friday, as results of local government elections showed major Labor losses, while Labor outcast Ken Livingstone looked set for certain victory in the London mayoral race.
The setback, coming about a year before the next general election is expected, was the most serious suffered by Blair in his three years in power, although analysts stress that most people use local elections to voice their opinion on purely local issues.
The big winner on "Super Thursday" was the Conservative Party, which with most votes counted gained more than 570 seats in the contest for 3,300 local councils across England. Labor losses edged over 560 seats.
The Conservatives had set themselves a target of 400 gains, a figure they felt would signal the party was poised to mount a strong challenge to Labor at the general election.
Labor leads the Conservatives by about 20 points in national opinion polls.
Conservative chairman Michael Ancram said the party had enjoyed a "very good night" and achieved "a very significant result."
The party's victory was tempered, however, by its defeat in a lone parliamentary by-election also held on Thursday, which saw the official opposition lose its 8,500 vote majority in the constituency of Romsey to the Liberal Democrats.
The poor turnout for Labor's candidate in Romsey - he lost his deposit after winning less than five percent of the vote - may indicate that Labor supporters voted strategically, backing the Social Democrats in a bid to deny the Conservatives victory.
Notwithstanding the disappointment in Romsey, Conservative leader William Hague has seen his outspoken stance on issues like crime and asylum vindicated, with the 570 local council seat gain way beyond his expectations.
Hague has proven that his tough line - derided by opponents on xenophobic and populist - broadly reflects voters' concerns.
His personal standing as party leader has also been strengthened: There had been speculation that he may be ousted before the next general election, but this week's achievement makes such a development far less likely.
The poor showing for Labor did not come as a complete surprise. The party expected to lose many seats it won the last time they were contested - in 1996, at the height of the Conservatives' unpopularity under Prime Minister John Major. In that election, the Conservatives lost almost half the seats they were defending.
Few believe Blair will lose the next election, but the results of this poll three years into the New Labor era suggest it may find itself with a considerably smaller majority.
The BBC called the defeat "devastating," and said the results would have "wide ranging consequences for the prime minister and Labor's future."
The biggest personal symbolic blow to Blair came in London, where he faces losing political leadership in one of the world's most important business centers - to a left-winger with anti-capitalist sympathies.
After counting delays, it became clear early Friday that Livingstone was on course to take more than 40 percent of the vote, with Steve Norris of the Conservative Party about 15 points behind in second place.
As his victory looked increasingly certain, Livingstone attributed it to voter boredom with "conventional" politics, and undertook to act in London's "best interest."
Livingstone was kicked out of the Labor Party after breaking an undertaking not to stand as an independent if he lost the party's nomination battle.
The selection of former health minister Frank Dobson as the party's candidate was widely seen as a "stitch-up" by Blair, who has been called a "control freak" by media and political opponents for the tight grip he exerts on his party.
Some Labor "back-benchers" (junior lawmakers) have warned Blair that his New Labor makeover of the party had left behind and alienated its core, largely working-class supporters.
Also see earlier story:
\plain\lang2057\f2\fs23\cf0 'Red Ken' leads race for London's first elected mayor (May 2, 2000)