MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The British Press are calling it a drubbing. The Labour Party of Prime Minister Gordon Brown suffered its worst defeat in local elections in four decades while the Conservative Party won hundreds of seats on local councils. And in London, Mayor Ken Livingstone, also of the Labour Party, has been defeated by his conservative opponent.
As NPR's Rob Gifford reports, the results contribute to doubts about the future of the prime minister and his party.
ROB GIFFORD: After eleven years, cracks are clearly starting to show in the Labour Party's formerly tight grip on British politics. It was a very bad night indeed for Gordon Brown in his first test as Labour Party leader. The opposition Conservatives made gains on local councils even in the traditional Labour heartlands in the north of England and in Wales, areas that have not seen Conservative representation for decades, if ever. Gordon Brown admitted it was a disappointing night, but he promised to listen and fight back.
Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (United Kingdom): The test of leadership is not what happens in a period of success, but what happens in difficult circumstances. And the challenge of leadership is to take the country through difficult times as well as through good times.
GIFFORD: It had all looked so rosy just nine months ago as Brown enjoyed an extended honeymoon after taking over from Tony Blair in June. But then perceived dithering and strategic blunders on issues such as tax crowded in on him just as global economic woes began to squeeze the British voters on mortgage rates and fuel prices.
David Cameron had the air today of the first Conservative Party leader in more than a decade to have a real hope of breaking the Labour Party's hold on power.
Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Leader, Conservative Party) I think these results are not just a vote against Gordon Brown and his government. I think they are a vote of positive confidence in the Conservative Party. I think people see a party that has changed for the better, that is united, that's got a strong team of leaders. And increasingly, they are looking to us and trusting us to speak out on issues that they really care about in terms of improving schools and improving our hospitals and dealing with crime on our streets.
GIFFORD: Analysts were not so sure though whether success in the local elections, traditionally a barometer of midterm feeling, mean that voters are ready to elect the Conservative Party again to national government. They point out that the Labour Party did badly in the 2004 elections but then Tony Blair bounced back in 2005 to win his third national election.
Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University says it's certainly a good start though for the Conservatives, especially with no sign that Britain's economic problems are going away.
Professor JOHN CURTICE (Politics, Strathclyde University): The hole into which Labour has now fallen in the midterm of this parliament is bigger than the hole in previous terms since 1997. So I think certainly the concerns have reached the point where they're now regard as an acceptable vehicle of protest, but perhaps they still have to convince people that they're regarded as a clear alternative government.
GIFFORD: In perhaps the biggest blow to Gordon Brown, incumbent Labour Party mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, lost to the Conservative candidate, former journalist Boris Johnson. That was a hugely symbolic victory for the Conservatives, who are suggesting tonight when the next national election is called, likely in 2010, that as goes the capital city, so will go the nation.
Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.
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