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Crisis-hit Blair government faces test at polls

Written by: Staff

LONDON, May 4 (Reuters) Voters in England went to the polls today in local elections with Prime Minister Tony Blair dogged by charges of incompetence that could damage his party's chances and pressure him to name a departure date.

Blair's Labour government has faced a barrage of criticism in past weeks over the bungled release of foreign prisoners, hospital cuts and his deputy's confession that he had an affair.

While local issues such as loutish behaviour or street lighting are high on voters' agendas, many people use mid-term elections to chastise the government in power.

Labour is facing a resurgent Conservative party and could also lose ground to far-right groups helped by the emergence of violent crime by foreigners as a top electoral issue.

''I've voted Labour all my life but I won't now. I'm fed up with Labour and the Liberals, they've done absolutely nothing in this area,'' said Mick Green, 50, in an England soccer shirt. He said he voted for the far-right British National Party.

Today's result could be the worst of Blair's nine-year remiership.

The vote comes a week after the government admitted it had released more than 1,000 foreign criminals after their sentences when they should have been considered for deportation, and after Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott admitted his affair.

Blair has also come under fire over hospital staff cuts and over allegations that Labour offered seats in the unelected upper house of parliament in return for loans and donations.

''I think Labour will do pretty badly to very badly,'' said David Denver, politics professor at Lancaster University. ''They will lose a lot of seats and some (local) authorities.'' TEST FOR NEW LEADERS Disastrous results could increase calls from within Labour for Blair to name a departure date, or hand power to finance minister Gordon Brown, his presumed successor.

Blair won a third straight term for Labour last year, albeit with a reduced majority, but has said he will not stand again.

The elections will also be a test of strength for the main opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, both of whom have new leaders keen to show they can deliver results.

The Conservatives must win more urban votes if they are to stand a chance of winning the next general election due by 2010.

In today's vote, 4,360 seats on 176 local councils in England are being contested. A loss of many more than 200 seats would be seen as a bad result for Labour, analysts say.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. 1130 hrs ist and close at 10 p.m. 2030 hrs ist.

The capital London is a key battleground, where several Labour-controlled councils risk falling to the Conservatives.

In the inner-London district of Camden, where ugly blocks of local authority housing lie a stone's throw from the homes of wealthy celebrities, the Conservatives are hoping to seize the council after decades of Labour dominance.

Walter Morgan, 70, said Labour would keep his vote for tackling drug crime: ''We're happy with how things are at the moment. Drugs is the main problem, they used to be rife here.'' But others in Camden said they would vote in protest against Blair, for the recent crises and for his decision to back the U.S.-led war in Iraq, unpopular with many voters.

''I'm voting Conservative because I don't like Tony Blair ...

He thinks he is king of the world,'' said Cesar Lopez, 41, originally from Cuba, at a polling station in Camden.

''I've always voted Labour but he's been there for so many years ... there's too much scandal and his ministers won't resign. He's just like Castro.'' REUTERS SY VC1930

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