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Bloody nose at polls for coalition

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are licking their wounds after voters dealt the coalition Government a stinging rebuke, handing big gains to Labour in mid-term local elections across the country.

Key councils such as Southampton, Birmingham, Plymouth, Reading, Norwich, Thurrock and Harlow fell to Ed Miliband's party, as Labour made inroads into the South of England, while Prime Minister David Cameron suffered the embarrassment of losing seats in his Witney constituency to Labour.

With around half of votes counted, Labour had racked up more than 470 new seats and looked set for overall gains of more than 700, while the Tories looked likely to lose more than 350 seats and the Liberal Democrats around 200.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said he was "really sad" at his party's results but insisted they would "continue to play our role" in Government dealing with the economic crisis.

Speaking outside his London home, the Deputy Prime Minister said: "I am really sad that so many colleagues and friends - Liberal Democrat councillors, who have worked so hard, so tirelessly for so many years for communities and families in their local areas - have lost their seats and I want to pay tribute to all the great work they have done.

"I am determined that we will continue to play our role in rescuing, repairing and reforming the British economy. It's not an easy job and it can't be done overnight but our duty is to boost jobs and investment and to restore a sense of hope and optimism to our country."

Foreign Secretary William Hague sought to play down the scale of the Conservative' losses.

"These results - while it is never a good feeling to lose councillors - are well within the normal range of mid-term results for governments and I think not so good for the Opposition who are not getting 40% of the vote," he said. "You wouldn't look at this and say Labour was on track to win a general election at all."

But Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman said: "We are back in touch and we are making progress. These are undoubtedly encouraging results. We are not crowing about them but they are very encouraging."

A BBC projection of the national vote share gave Mr Miliband's party 39% - up three points on a year ago. The Tories were down four on 31% and the Lib Dems trod water on 16%.