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Labour puts coalition on the rack

David Cameron and Nick Clegg have been dealt a stinging rebuke by the public as Labour racked up big gains in local elections.

Key councils such as Thurrock, Harlow, Southampton, Birmingham, Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Chorley fell to Ed Miliband's party. The Prime Minister was also embarrassed by losses in his Oxfordshire constituency - with Labour taking the seats of Witney Central, Witney East and Chipping Norton.

In a further blow, Manchester, Nottingham and Coventry ignored Mr Cameron's pleas and rejected proposals for elected mayors. Birmingham and other cities are expected to follow suit.

The Liberal Democrats were not spared pain, being left without a representative on several powerful councils as voters seemingly punished the Government for austerity measures.

Overall Labour looked on track to exceed the 700 gains experts had set as the threshold for a good performance. A BBC projection of the national vote share gave the party 39% - up three points on a year ago. The Tories were down four on 31% and the Lib Dems trod water on 16%.

However, Mr Miliband did suffer a setback in Bradford, where his party lost seats to Respect. The results followed George Galloway's shock success in last month's parliamentary by-election.

Tories pointed to a low turnout, estimated at little over 30%, suggesting that "apathy" had played a significant part in the results.

But there were also calls for a change in direction from the leadership. Senior backbencher Bernard Jenkin insisted the party had to focus on the economy rather than allowing their Lib Dem coalition partners to dictate the agenda. "The coalition is going to look completely stupid if it follow through on Lords reform," he told the BBC.

Local Government Secretary and former Tory chairman Eric Pickles told Sky News the outcome was to be expected. He said: "When a party is rock bottom there's only one way to go. But I'm not seeking to rain on Labour's parade."

Some 5,000 seats were at stake on 181 local councils across England, Scotland and Wales. Most were last up for grabs in 2008, when the Conservatives made significant gains and Labour and the Lib Dems were hit hard.