A STRONG tide of opposition voting in local government elections has forced Britain's ruling party onto the defensive. Leading political analysts are suggesting that if the results of polling in England and Wales on May 2 were reflected in a general election, the Conservative government would lose - either outright or in a ``hung Parliament'' outcome.
Last Thursday's results were so bad for the government that Prime Minister John Major has had to abandon hope of being able to call a ``snap'' general election.
Mr. Major is coming under mounting pressure to prove that in the post-Thatcher era he is capable of leading the Conservative Party to victory for a fourth successive five-year term.
In voting for more than 12,000 town hall seats, the Conservatives lost 890 seats - an outcome described by Major as ``a little disappointing,'' but privately seen by party stalwarts as bordering on the disastrous.
Before the poll, a Conservative Party official had forecast that the ``worst that could happen'' was a loss of ``300 to 400 seats.''
Afterward, the same official conceded that his party's losses were ``much worse than we expected.''
Overall, the Conservatives lost control of 35 local councils. There was no voting in London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
The opposition Labour Party and Liberal Democrats made heavy gains in southern England, where the Conservatives have been strong for the past dozen years.
Labour sees narrow lead
Afterward Jack Cunningham, Labour's campaign coordinator, claimed computer analysis showed that in a general election the May 2 voting patterns would have propelled his party into government with a narrow but clear majority.
But David Butler, an election analyst at Nuffield College, Oxford, said the 6 percent swing to Labour would have resulted in a ``hung'' parliament, with the Conservatives unable to command a clear majority.
In some parts of southern England the swing against the government exceeded 8 percent.
Computer analysis conducted after the local poll by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) suggested that in a general election the Labour Party would win 309 seats, the Conservatives 289, Liberal Democrats 28, and other parties 24.
The Conservatives currently hold 372 parliamentary seats against Labour's 230 and the Liberal Democrats' 21.
The BBC analysis suggested the likelihood of a hung parliament, with Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power.
Commenting on the projections, Mr. Ashdown said his party's price for cooperating with Labour in government would be firm promises of electoral reform.
``Don't even pick up the phone unless you are prepared to make that promise to us,'' he advised Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party leader.
Britain runs a first-past-the-post electoral system, which is a disadvantage to the small parties. Ashdown wants proportional representation, which would give parties such as his own a better chance of winning more seats.
Local government elections in Britain are not a foolproof guide to how people may vote in a general election, but last week's poll attracted intense interest because it was the first popular verdict on the Conservatives since Mrs. Thatcher was replaced by Major.
The size of the Conservative losses appeared to confirm that popular dissatisfaction with inflation, high interest rates, and unemployment is running strong.
An official at Conservative central office said the results made it ``very likely'' that Major would delay going to the country at least until the autumn and possibly until spring next year.
The latest a general election can be held is July 11, 1992, but British prime ministers prefer to call elections early, at times of their own choosing.
One Conservative MP said: ``John has to be worried by these results. He is running short of time and room for maneuver.''
Mr. Kinnock said the local results showed that a general election should be held ``to find out the real mood of the country.'' He asked Major to call one immediately.
Early poll is `unlikely'
John MacGregor, leader of the House of Commons, said an early general election was now ``very unlikely.''
``Inflation is coming down, and so are interest rates. There is plenty of time to decide,'' Mr. MacGregor said.
Political analysts noted that the Liberal Democrats had made more gains than Labour.
Mr. Butler commented: ``At the local level, big national issues have an impact, but so, too, do matters of specific concern to local residents.
``By this measure, the outcome was mixed.''