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UK Labour savaged at local council elections -

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UK Labour savaged at local council elections - correspondent Rafael Epstein explains

Broadcast: 03/05/2008

Reporter: Rafael Epstein

Lateline is joined by ABC's Europe correspondent Rafael Epstein to discuss the results of Britain's
local government elections.


VIRGINIA TRIOLI, PRESENTER: The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has failed his first electoral
test, with voters savaging the Labour Party at today's Local Government elections.

Labour's estimated to have won only 24 per cent of the vote and it's fallen to third place behind
the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

It's Labour's worst election result in 40 years and it's if repeated at a general election, it
would deliver the Conservative Party a majority of about 130 seats in the House of Commons.

To discuss the results, we're joined from London by the ABC's Europe correspondent Rafael Epstein.

Rafael, it's a stunning victory for the Conservatives. What does it all really mean?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN, EUROPE CORRESPONDENT: Well, firstly, it means the Tories are now the party of local
government and if people in the Westminster village, the commentariat, didn't think of the Tories
as a viable alternative before this, they certainly do now. That's what the voters are telling

What's interesting is that by winning 10 councils - and Labor lost eight - they've actually done
better than the poll lead, the opinion poll lead they have at the moment. David Cameron had
something like an 18 point poll lead, which you have to go back to Margaret Thatcher's heyday in
1987 for something similar. He's done better than that, he's got a 20 point lead. So he's showing
he's got - he can translate concrete results out of something - a sentiment that's only expressed
in the opinion polls.

The other thing that's important to look at is this north of the country. They won control of
councils like Berry and Wigan. People for a long time - when Tony Blair was the Prime Minister,
said the Tories can't win in the North, that means they can't win government. It's now more unusual
to have a council there without a Tory member, than it is unusual to have a council there without a
Labor representation. So, Labor's really losing seats there. They've done terribly in Wales, again,
as they did in the national elections, and something that was very telling was the imagery this
morning. Gordon Brown hunkered down in Downing Street, just giving a quick answer to a few
questions. David Cameron was out early buying the milk and the papers, just like you and me, an
ordinary person. And he's already been to Wales, he's been to the Midlands. He will be in the north
of England around now, going to all the victory spots, trying hard not to boast.

DAVID CAMERON, CONSERVATIVE LEADER: I think this is a very big moment for the Conservative Party.
But I don't want anyone to think that we would deserve to win an election just on the back of a
failing Government. I want us to really prove to people that we can make the changes that they want
to see in terms of schools and hospitals and crime and the other issues that really matter to all
of us.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So, it's a disaster, then, for Labor, Rafael?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Look, he's done worse than Harold Wilson. He's done worse than Michael Foot as you
said at the top there. They're third place after the Liberal Democrats. What's extraordinary, what
makes it embarrassing is that Gordon Brown spent more than a decade agitating against Tony Blair
saying he could do a lot better. He's been trading on his image as a fantastic economic manager,
not only the giant, iron, clunking fist, a brilliant political strategist, but this fantastic,
prudential economic manager. Now when the economic downturn comes and Labor says, "Trust us", all
the time - more than a decade, they've spent building up his image - it counts for nothing. So,
that really means where do you go to now? There's a talk of a relaunch of the relaunch of the
relaunch of Gordon Brown. Some of the Ministers are talking about an avalanche of policy ideas that
are going to come. But they're not really breaking through. They don't have a great media performer
as leader of their Party. Let's have a listen to what Gordon Brown had to say.

GORDON BROWN, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: People are questioning and want to be assured that the
Government will steer them through these difficult economic times. And I think over the next few
months, it will become clear that the decisions that we've made to help people on mortgages, to
help people with food and fuel bills and the decisions about the future of the economy, will see
the economy through. And not only that, but we are preparing the economy for the upturn and
prosperity to follow. And I think that will become clear over the next few months.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So, Rafael, can Labour recover in time before the next general election or does
all of this, even in a local council sense, does it put the Conservatives too far ahead?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Firstly, they can have an election any time up to the next two years, so they have
a little bit of time to regroup if they could. People are pointing out that the Tories have done
very well in the past in local council elections, not won government and that John Major did very
badly in '91 in the local council elections and then won, remarkably, in 1992. But Labor looks like
they really are in trouble. They actually have a really good story to tell: unemployment here is at
a 30 year low and this big backbench rebellion over the tax changes, there were more winners than
losers, but they just can't present that as something that is attractive to people. So you can't
say that Labor's going to lose the next general election, but it does look increasingly like,
unless there isn't some big change - and there doesn't look like there's going to be a leadership
change - if there isn't some big change in what Labor's doing, they're looking really bad at the
next general election.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Rafael Epstein, thanks very much.