CITIES across Yorkshire and England have delivered a resounding rejection of David Cameron’s plan to replace their council leaders with directly-elected mayors as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats suffered a stinging election backlash from voters up and down the country.
The Prime Minister’s flagship policy to drive growth in the regions by installing London-style mayors in England’s largest cities lay in tatters last night, as the public rejected the plan in nine of the 10 cities holding votes including Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Wakefield.
On a dreadful night for the Coalition parties, Labour scored landslide wins in local authority elections throughout Britain, taking control of 32 councils – including Birmingham, Glasgow, Cardiff and North East Lincolnshire – and winning more than 800 seats.
Mr Cameron’s one crumb of comfort was Labour’s failure to win the mayoral race in London, where Tory favourite Boris Johnson defeated Ken Livingstone for the second time in succession, but the winning margin of 51.5% to 48.5% was tighter than predicted in many polls and the result was delayed until minutes before midnight by glitches in the counting process.
Turn-out across the UK was dismal, with fewer than one in three people nationwide bothering to vote.
But Labour leader Ed Miliband said his party was “winning back voters’ trust”, and highlighted victories in southern cities such as Plymouth and Southampton as a key indicator of his party’s recovery, following its virtual wipe-out in the 2010 General Election.
“This is a rejection of the economic failure of this Government and the unfairness of this Government,” the Doncaster MP said.
“Labour is back in the South.”
The Conservatives were expecting to find some solace in the victory of Boris Johnson over his Labour rival Ken Livingstone in the race to be Mayor of London.
But even that result was proving closer than expected, with Mayor Johnson still waiting to be pronounced winner last night.
It was little more than a fig leaf for Number 10, which had been briefing Labour might win 800 seats earlier in the week on the assumption the party would miss that target by some distance.
In fact Labour comfortably exceeded that total, with a 39 per cent share of the national vote which would return the party to Government if repeated at the next General Election.
Mr Cameron found himself forced to apologise to more than 400 “hard-working Conservative councillors” across England who lost their seats after voters punished the Tories following a torrid six weeks for the Government.
The Prime Minister is now facing discontented rumblings from backbenchers concerned at the party’s plummeting popularity since the Budget in March.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said he felt “very sad” for his own local activists as his party suffered its second drubbing at the hands of the electorate in as many years, seeing its total number of councillors fall to its lowest level since the party was formed.
For Labour, the only real disappointment outside the capital was the party’s failure to take full control of Bradford, where it was denied an outright majority by George Galloway’s Respect Party.
In a night of high drama, Respect took five seats including a knife-edge victory over council leader Ian Greenwood, who lost his own seat – and £50,000-a-year job – by just 17 votes, leaving Labour with exactly half the seats on the council and so no overall majority.
“Respect has emerged as a viable alternative to the grail of Labour,” a triumphant Mr Galloway said. “We have taken seats from all three of the major parties.”
But Mr Greenwood said that while he was “sad” to have lost his seat, he still expected Labour to control the council in a minority administration.
Elsewhere in Yorkshire, his party cemented its control over existing strongholds such as Sheffield and Leeds, with the Lib Dems suffering huge losses in every big city.
For Mr Cameron, a truly grim night was compounded by the nation’s powerful rejection of his plan for “a nation of mayors”.
Of the 10 cities holding referendums, only Bristol voted in favour, though Doncaster did vote to keep its existing mayoral system.
Leeds Council leader Keith Wakefield, who had spoken out against the mayoral proposal, said: “The statement has been very clear across the North that this is what people want. Now we now need to get on with the real job of tackling unemployment.”
Comment: Page 18.