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Lib Dems' Sheffield steal;Elections

Labour may be riding high in the national polls, but the backlash seems to have started - in the Education Secretary's backyard. Clare Dean reports on a grim election night up north for Labour

THE Liberal Democrats seized control of three education authorities in last week's local elections, snatching Sheffield - the city council once led by David Blunkett - in their most notable victory.

The Education Secretary, who was council leader in the 1980s and is now the Sheffield Brightside MP, was magnanimous in defeat. "The Liberal Democrats did extremely well," said Mr Blunkett. "It would be churlish of me not to congratulate them."

Despite the Lib Dem successes, the education landscape across the country remains essentially the same, with Labour retaining control of most local authorities.

Nevertheless, the loss of Sheffield is a major blow to Labour. While Mr Blunkett appealed to Sheffield's new leaders to work with Labour at Westminster "for the sake of the city", Jan Wilson, the party's leader in Sheffield, bemoaned the defeat.

"We had a long and difficult time under a fairly hostile Tory government but, since Labour came to power, things have been on the up, with significant investment in education," she said.

"Unfortunately that progess hasn't come quickly enough for the voters and a tide of change has swept us away."

Lord Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the Labour party, who is from Sheffield, could not explain the defeat but said: "I think it is a great tragedy."

Peter Moore, the Lib Dem leader of the council, blamed Labour's loss on years of wasteful spending which he said had led to cuts in services and mounting debts. "We always said 2000 would be our year, but obviously the people of Sheffield decided 1999 would be the year instead," he said. "People wanted a change."

As well as their victory in Sheffield, the Lib Dems took Stockport and South Gloucestershire, both authorities where previously none of the parties had been in overall control.

The Lib Dems also hung on to Liverpool, which they took last year, increasing their majority by nine as Labour lost 10 seats. But they lost Poole - now a council with no overall control - conceding four seats to the Tories.

Success for the Tories came in North Somerset, where there had been a boundary change, which they took from no overall control after winning 15 seats.

Labour meanwhile gained Walsall but lost Kirklees, where no party now has overall control.

More than 13,000 seats in 362 councils in England, Scotland and Wales were contested at the polls last week. Elections were held in all district councils, English shire unitaries and Welsh unitaries. London borough elections will be held in May 2002

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