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British centrists make grass-roots gains

Can a third political force break the two-party stranglehold in British politics? That perennial question comes with fresh urgency as a result of the surge in the Social Democratic Party-Liberal alliance vote in county council elections in England and Wales last week.

The elections for the 47 county councils have limited significance. They are only to elect local authorities and have no bearing on the standing of the parties in Parliament.

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But, coming halfway through the government's second term, they provide some pointers to the political mood of the country.

The impressive showing of the alliance suggests that if the fledgling party can retain this momentum, it could break the traditional mold of British politics. Since the 1920s power has alternated between the Labour Party and the Conservatives.

Before the election, Conservatives were in firm control of 18 county councils. They lost 10 of them. The alliance made sweeping gains in the west -- in Devon, Gloucester, Somerset, and Cornwall -- and robbed the Conservatives of their control of Hampshire, traditionally one of the most Tory shires in the country, for the first time in 41 years.

The alliance assault was not so strong that former Conservative counties dropped right into the alliance column.

But the SDP-Liberal challenge was penetrating enough to result in hung councils. In Berkshire for instance, Labour and Conservative have 29 seats each, with the alliance holding the balance with 14 seats. This result is in line with alliance strategy to act as power brokers.

While the SDP gained its votes largely at the expense of the Conservatives, Labour did not fare so well as its leaders had expected.

Although Labour claims that the aggregate of votes if applied to the parliamentary situation would mean a Labour government at the next election, Labour still lost five councils.

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The election trends have to be treated with some caution.

There is invariably a swing against the government in power at midterm.

Voters who might be willing to flirt with other parties at the local level frequently return to their regular political base at national election time.

What the alliance -- and the Liberals in particular -- has succeeded in doing is to consolidate political power at the local level.

This will give them the kind of political experience they lacked in the past and will provide them with a springboard for stronger entry into the national political scene.

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