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Labour Party Bashed In U.K. Elections

Voters handed Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour party a string of embarrassing defeats in municipal elections, seen Friday as a rebuke to the outgoing leader in his final days in office.

Most notably, the pro-independence Scottish National Party won the most seats in elections to the Scottish Parliament, beating the Labour Party in a closely fought race.

In elections marred by technical and other problems, the SNP took 47 of 129 seats, compared to 46 seats for Labour. The Conservative Party finished third, with 17 seats, while the Liberal Democrats won 16 seats.

The close result will mean that no one party will be able to govern alone in the parliament. Labour has governed Scotland in the past together in a coalition with Britain's third main party, the Liberal Democrats.

Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom for 300 years, but has its own legal system, and since 1998, it also has an independent parliament in Edinburgh which handles Scotland-only issues. It also sends representatives to the U.K. central government in London.

SNP leader Alex Salmond, who himself won a tough battle in the constituency of Gordon, in northeast Scotland, could now be Scotland's First Minister, or national leader.

"I think there is a new dawn breaking, not just in the northeast of Scotland but across our country," Salmond said after he won his seat in the Parliament. "I think there is a perspective opening up in Scottish politics which is going to transcend our experience."

Blair said the results were not as bad as predicted.

"Everyone said we were going to get hammered, it was going to be a rout, and it's not turned out like that," he said. "The fact is we have come from 10 points behind in Scotland to neck and neck."

But there were problems in counting votes, ranging from fog in the remote Western Isles — a helicopter due to carry ballot boxes to a counting hall was grounded — to engine failure in a boat ferrying votes from the Scottish isle of Arran.

Officials were investigating technical problems with the computers that counted electronic votes, and there were delays in getting postal votes to people's homes. Newspapers branded the election "a fiasco and a shambles" after it was beset with technical problems as an estimated 100,000 ballot papers — five percent of the turnout — were spoiled.

Blair — who has said he will formally announce next week he will resign as prime minister — has claimed three national poll victories since 1997. Some activists concede the unpopular Iraq war and a domestic cash-for-honors scandal have made him an electoral liability.

David Cameron's Conservatives won hundreds of council seats, but fewer than they hoped for in northern England.

"You always take a hit in the midterm, but these results provide a perfectly good springboard to go on and win the next national election," Blair said.

With results from 291 of 312 English councils counted, Labour lost 460 seats and control of eight councils, while the opposition Conservatives gained 837 seats and control of 37 more councils, to a total of 155. The third-place Liberal Democrats lost 247 seats and lost five councils to a total of 21.

"Look at the huge lead we have over Labour and you can see we are the ones setting the agenda in British politics, we're the ones with the momentum in British politics and I think we are ready to serve our country again," Cameron told the AP Friday in the north of England.

After all 60 Welsh assembly seats were declared, Labour held 26 seats, compared to 15 for second-place Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party.

"Overall, what we're seeing are the midterm blues," the Leader of the Commons, Jack Straw, watching ballots being counted in the town of Blackburn, northern England, told British Broadcasting Corp. television. "That's just a fact of life."

He said it was typical for the party in government to fare badly in municipal polls, before "bouncing back at the general election."

Labour's performance was marginally improved on results in 2006 local elections and better than polls had suggested — though still among its worst-ever election performances.

Britain's opposition Conservatives, led by the youthful Cameron, made some advances — but failed to gain a single council seat in the northern city of Manchester, deemed a key test of the party's revival and ability to win favor in Labour's traditional heartland.

In 1970, Conservatives held 62 parliamentary seats in the north, compared with 19 following the 2005 general election.

Leighton Vaughan Williams, political analyst at Nottingham Business School, said the Conservatives had not shown enough progress to suggest they would sweep the next national poll — expected in 2009.

Treasury chief Gordon Brown — Blair's likely successor — had some cause for optimism, Williams said. "Margaret Thatcher's Tories used to suffer hellish beatings in midterm local polls in the 1980s," he said. "But every time, they stormed back to victory in national elections."

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