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Iraq War Haunts British Labor Party in Local Polls - 2004-06-12

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's leadership is again being called into question after his Labor party suffered losses in local council elections in England and Wales. Prime Minister Blair's decision to take Britain to war in Iraq is seen as a key factor in the elections.

For the first time in decades, the Labor Party slipped to third place in Thursday's local elections, behind the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged his decision to join the United States in a war against Saddam Hussein has cost his party votes. But he says his decision was right.

"I think it's a question of holding our nerve and seeing it through and realizing, yes, Iraq has been an immensely difficult decision, but we've got to turn that around and seeing it through," he said.

Labor member of parliament and former Defense Minister Peter Kilfoyle says the message from the voters is clear.

"I suspect that more of our supporters stayed away, despite the raised turnout," Mr. Kilfoyle said. "I think that there were people who were making a conscious decision very often to vote against the government on the Iraq war, but on what they see as the increased estrangement, the disengagement, of the government from their concerns."

Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook says the prime minister needs to reassure the public that he heard the anti-war message from the voters. He adds, it will not be enough to merely say 'we are holding our nerve.'

Mr. Cook resigned from his Cabinet post as leader of the House of Commons to protest the war.

Although political analysts still predict Mr. Blair's Labor Party will win next year's general election, they say the party's poor showing in the local elections will reopen debate over the prime minister's leadership.

Mr. Blair himself insists he is ready and fit to lead his party into a third consecutive term in power at the next election.