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U.K.’s Governing Conservatives Set for Historic Losses in Local Polls, Labour Urges General Election

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LONDON — Britain's governing Conservative Party is suffering heavy losses as an array of election results pour in Friday, piling pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ahead of a U.K. general election in which the main opposition Labour Party appears increasingly likely to return to power after 14 years.

Labour won control of councils in England it hasn't held for decades and was successful in a special by-election for Parliament that, if repeated in a general election in coming months, would lead to one of the Conservatives′ biggest-ever defeats.

The only negative so far for Labour has been in some areas with large Muslim populations, such as Oldham in northwest England, where the party's candidates appear to have suffered as a result of leader Keir Starmer 's strongly pro-Israel stance in the conflict in Gaza.

Perhaps most important in the context of the looming general election, which has to take place by January but could come as soon as next month, Labour easily won back Blackpool South in the northwest of England that went Conservative in the last general election in 2019, when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a big victory. In the contest, triggered by the resignation of a Conservative lawmaker following a lobbying scandal, Labour’s Chris Webb secured 10,825 votes, to his second-placed Conservative opponent's 3,218.

Labour leader Starmer went to Blackpool to congratulate Webb on his success and urged Sunak to call a general election.

“This was directly to Rishi Sunak to say we are fed up with your decline, your chaos and your division and we want change," he said.

Thursday’s elections in large parts of England were important in themselves, with voters deciding who will run many aspects of their daily lives, such as garbage collection, road maintenance and local crime prevention, in the coming years. But with a general election looming, they will be viewed through a national prism.

John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said the results so far indicate that the Conservatives are losing around half of the seats they are trying to defend.

“We are probably looking at certainly one of the worst, if not the worst, Conservative performances in local government elections for the last 40 years,” he told BBC radio.

The results so far provide more evidence that Labour is likely to form the next government — and by quite a margin — and that Starmer will become prime minister.

As of Friday morning, with barely a quarter of the 2,661 seats up for grabs counted, the Conservatives were down 122 while Labour was up 52. Other parties, such as the centrist Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are also making gains. Reform U.K., which is trying to usurp the Conservatives from the right, can also point to a successful set of election results, even thought it contested a minority of council seats. The party's threat to the Conservatives was evident in Blackpool South, where it was less than 200 votes from second place.

Labour has won in areas that voted heavily for Britain's departure from the European Union and where it was previously crushed by Johnson, such as Hartlepool in the northeast of England, and Thurrock in southeast England. It also seized control of Rushmoor, a leafy and military-heavy council in the south of England where it has never won.

The results will roll in through Saturday. Sunak hopes that he can point to successes, notably in several key mayoral races, to douse talk that the Conservative Party will change its leader again before the U.K.'s main election.

Key to his survival could be the results of mayoral elections in Tees Valley in the northeast of England and in the West Midlands. The former is due Friday midday and the latter on Saturday. Should Conservative mayors Ben Houchen and Andy Street hold on, Sunak may win some respite from restive lawmakers in his party. Should both lose, he may face trouble. Labour's Sadiq Khan is expected to remain mayor of London when results are announced on Saturday..

Sunak could preempt any challenge by threatening to call a general election that has to take place before January 2025. He has the power to decide on the date and has indicated that it will be in the second half of 2024.

Sunak became prime minister in October 2022 after the short-lived tenure of his predecessor, Liz Truss, who left office after 49 days following a budget of unfunded tax cuts that roiled financial markets and sent borrowing costs for homeowners surging.

Her chaotic — and traumatic — leadership compounded the Conservatives' difficulties following the circus surrounding her predecessor Johnson, who was forced to quit after being adjudged to have lied to Parliament over lockdown breaches at his offices in Downing Street.

Nothing Sunak has tried to do appears to have shifted the political dial, with Labour consistently 20 percentage points ahead in opinion polls, which would lead, if translated into a general election, to a landslide victory on a par with that achieved by Tony Blair in 1997.

Whether anyone else can do better is a question that may occupy the minds of nervous Conservative lawmakers in Parliament heading into the weekend.

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