Early results give a boost to blues

The Conservatives received positive news in the North-East early in last night's count as they grabbed a seat in one of its target wards in Sunderland.

The Conservatives received positive news in the North-East early in last night's count as they grabbed a seat in one of its target wards in Sunderland.

The gain will buoy the Tories as they attempt to strengthen their toe-hold in the region, amid criticism their support in the South-East is not replicated further afield.

Michael Dixon ousted sitting Labour councillor Stuart Porthouse in the St Chad's ward.

But Sunderland - renowned for its fast counting - was the first council in the country to be confirmed as a Labour hold last night.

And with Labour braced for heavy losses across the UK, the party was hoping it would see only minor setbacks in its North-East heartland.

It lost one Sunderland seat - Copt Hill - to one of the city's army of independent candidates.

But Labour won back Doxford from sitting independent Mike Tansey, a former party member.

Nevertheless, Houghton and Washington East Labour MP Fraser Kemp said: "The biggest loser from tonight's results is David Cameron. If the Conservatives were going to gain any sort of foothold in Sunderland, you would have thought they would have done it tonight - but they have manifestly failed to do so.

"Tonight's result was a vote of confidence for the dynamic Labour leadership of Sunderland City Council who have created a vibrant, successful city.

"Although Labour did lose a couple of seats, they have also gained from the independents. I am delighted with tonight's outcome."

Independent Colin Wakefield, who won Copt Hill, said: "This result shows that local party politics should be about local issues, not national issues and the people of Houghton-le-Spring voiced their concerns over the landfill site by voting the way they did.

The Tories' success in Sunderland will be a boost to local campaigners, who believe they stand an outside chance of snatching the new Sunderland Central Parliamentary seat in the next general election, thanks to favourable boundary changes.

The ward in which their first gain came, however, was in a separate constituency.

They are looking for breakthroughs to help convince party bosses to plough more resources into their fight.

However, the shadow minister earmarked to help bolster support in the North-East - trade and industry spokesman Alan Duncan - has focused his efforts on Tyneside.

Most councils in the North-East will not count the votes until this morning, and the Tories' biggest hopes will be to make gains in North Tyneside - where despite having the largest number of councillors, they are in opposition due to a Labour elected mayor.

But the Tories admit they are unlikely to make any gains in Newcastle or Gateshead, where they have no councillors at all - though it was reported they may see signs of slight increases in support in some middle class wards.

There was also speculation their control of Berwick Council could be under threat.

Meanwhile, candidates for the region's newest political party were waiting to find out if they have made a dent in Labour's domination in Wansbeck, in Northumberland.

The Fresh Party was launched four months ago to breath new life into the political scene in Wansbeck and try to win seats on the district council.

Yesterday they fielded 17 candidates in the 18 Wansbeck Council wards in a bid to secure a foothold on the authority which had 37 Labour members, seven Liberal Democrats and one Independent councillor before voters went to the polls.

Early this morning, as votes continued to be counted leaders of both Fresh and the Lib Dems were hopeful of making an impression on the Labour power base on the council.

The Lib Dems were hoping to double their numbers to 14 seats while Labour bosses were pinning their hopes of success on £125m of regeneration and other funding which has been levered into the district in the last four years.

Fresh Party leader Simon Ferson said the newcomers had received of overwhelming response from local people and were hoping to win five or more seats on the council.

Most favour General Election

Almost three-quarters of voters think there should be a General Election when Tony Blair steps down as Prime Minister and hands over to his successor, according to a poll released yesterday.

And those who want an early election include more than half of Labour voters (52%) who took part in the poll, for BBC2's Newsnight.

Mr Blair said yesterday he would make a definitive announcement about his future next week, which is expected to lead to Gordon Brown taking over at 10 Downing Street around the end of June.

Mr Brown has not yet said whether he would seek a fresh mandate as PM by calling a snap election, but it is thought likely he will wait until 2009 or 2010 before going to the polls.

The survey, carried out by CommunicateResearch, found 73% of those taking part thought there should be a General Election "soon after" Mr Blair steps down, against 23% who said there should not.

A swift election was most popular among Conservative voters (88% for, 12% against) but also enjoyed the backing of a majority of Liberal Democrats (70% for, 27% against) and Labour supporters (52% for, 44% against).

The poll also suggested Mr Blair would leave office with his reputation for trustworthiness at an all-time low. Just 27% said they would describe him as trustworthy, down from 48% in a similar poll five years ago.

Meanwhile, numbers describing him as arrogant rose to 55%, up from 39% five years ago, and those who said he was "in touch with ordinary people" dropped to 34%, down from 43% in 2002.

His reputation for competence slid from 68% in 2002 to 50% now. And those who said he was "respected around the world" dropped from 66% to 45% over the past five years.

Full results from the poll were broadcast on Newsnight last night.

* CommunicateResearch interviewed 1,001 adults between April 27 and 29.

Helicopter hitch delays count

Polls closed last night in what has been billed as Scotland's most important election for a generation, with signs pointing to a high turnout.

But the counting operation also encountered an early hitch which could delay the final result - widely expected to be on a knife-edge.

A helicopter collecting ballot boxes in the Western Isles was reported to be fogbound, prompting fears the result could be delayed by several hours.

The chartered helicopter was due to fly to Barra for a pick-up there, and then go on to Benbecula to uplift the ballot boxes there to take them on to Stornoway. The hitch means the count for the Western Isles will not start until 10am.

The Western Isles seat at Holyrood is being defended by Alasdair Morrison (Labour) who has only a 720 majority, while the Westminster seat is held by the SNP.

Party workers said they were confident their vote was turning out across Scotland.

Some suggested the turnout could be as high at 60%, a full 10% up on the last Holyrood election in 2003.

An SNP spokesman said: "We are very pleased with our campaign and it's clear that our vote has turned out. An opinion poll found by a margin of three to one that people thought the SNP had run the best campaign and we believe our vote has turned out."

A Tory spokesman said: "We know our vote is solid and we are finding supporters coming to us from other parties."

There are close to four million registered voters in Scotland.

Electors will choose 129 MSPs through the first-past-the-post constituency seats and on regional lists.

Also being elected are councillors for all of Scotland's 32 local authorities, using a new system where voters select candidates in order of preference.

Labour braced for heavy losses but must wait for final details

Labour was expected to take a political battering in the local elections last night but a clear picture of just how brutal the electorate's parting shot to Prime Minister Tony Blair was taking time to emerge.

Labour faced a tough fight with the Scottish National Party over control of the Holyrood Parliament and to regain control of the National Assembly in Cardiff.

It was also braced for heavy losses in English councils - with the potential of being wiped out in the South and losing control of authorities in some traditional strongholds.

But extra work required because of new anti-fraud measures for postal votes mean an increasing number of town hall counts will not be completed until today.

Early indications suggested a very high turnout in Scotland - possibly as much as 10% up on the last Holyrood poll in 2003 at 60%.

However voters appeared far less enthusiastic in parts of England, with an official in Middlesbrough putting turnout at around 20%.

The elections are the biggest test of electoral opinion since Mr Blair lead Labour to a third term in office in the 2005 general election.

But with the Prime Minister set to formally announce his resignation as Labour leader next week, any electoral hangover will be a headache for his successor - almost certainly Gordon Brown.

However, the ballots also represent an important test for Conservative leader David Cameron, who needs to show his party's revival stretches beyond the South-East into areas that have been virtual Tory-free zones since 1997.

And Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell needs some sign of progress to reassure internal party critics that he is the man to take them into the General Election of 2009/10. Strategists argue that he cannot expect big gains, as many of the seats up for grabs were last contested at a high point for Lib Dems in 2003.

In the Scottish Parliament, pre-vote polls suggested the contest was on a knife edge and any close result would lead to a protracted period of horse-trading as each tries to form a coalition administration in association with Liberal Democrats, Greens, Socialists or Tories.

In England, Mr Blair's party is simply hoping to minimise the number of seats it loses on councils up and down the country.

Predictions are that Labour could haemorrhage as many as 750 of the 2,385 seats it is defending, and the party's control of authorities such as Sheffield, Blackpool, Lincoln, Plymouth and Blackburn is under threat.

After a string of poor performances in local elections, Labour holds just 28% of Britain's 21,892 council seats - its weakest position since 1973 - against the Conservatives' 39%.

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