UK Politics

Labour launches English local election campaign

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Media captionEd Miliband described the contest as "the first nationwide test" of the coalition government

Ed Miliband has launched Labour's campaign for council elections in England, saying the party will be the "first line of defence" against cuts.

The Labour leader argued local authority budget cuts will hit the poorest communities hardest and his party will stand up for those affected.

David Cameron told Conservative MPs on Wednesday they could win the "big argument" over the extent and speed of coalition plans to cut the deficit.

Voters go to the polls on 5 May.

More than 9,500 council seats will be contested in 279 local authorities across England, on the same day as devolved elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and a referendum on the future of the UK electoral system.

Although Labour has won both parliamentary by-elections held since Mr Miliband became leader in September, next month's polls will be the first national test of his performance.

The party is hoping to make significant gains as the last time the same council seats up for grabs in May were contested, in the dying days of Tony Blair's premiership in 2007, Labour had a disastrous night, losing control of 16 local authorities.

In his speech at a school in Birmingham, Mr Miliband said Labour's local election campaign would be built around "a clear pledge to people across the country: we will be your voice in tough times".

He argued that reductions in councils' spending power this year will be equivalent to a £182 cut for every two-parent household with children - and the "worst-off areas are being hit hardest".

"Cuts designed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg are coming direct from Downing Street to your street," said Mr Miliband.

And he vowed: "Labour will be your community's first line of defence against the damage being done by a Conservative-led government and their Liberal Democrat allies."

'Hold its nerve'

Under plans announced in October, central government funding for local authorities will fall by 28% over the next four years.

Ministers say councils can cut back on bureaucracy and procurement costs to mitigate the impact on core services used by the public and stress they are providing transitional funding for the first two years for the most affected councils.

Labour, who say this funding will provide only a "small cushion" for a short while, argue that councils are being forced to "frontload" cuts to services into the first two years. And they say town halls in more deprived parts of the country are being unfairly treated.

Mr Miliband has rejected government claims that some Labour councils were deliberately cutting frontline services for political reasons to embarrass the government.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "They are making efficiency savings and they are doing their very best to protect services that people really value and contribute to social justice in this country."

The government has accused Labour of having no concrete plan to deal with the UK's record peacetime deficit while stressing steps it is taking to help people with rising living costs - such as ensuring no council tax payer in England will see a rise in their bills this year.

Addressing a meeting of Tory MPs on Wednesday evening, Mr Cameron said they should be confident that they could win the key economic argument about the deficit and the pace of cuts.

The prime minister pledged to spend three days a week campaigning ahead of May's poll and urged MPs to campaign "hard locally".

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has urged his party to "hold its nerve" ahead of the elections, saying they are taking difficult decisions in the national interest and will be rewarded in the long term.

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