LONDON Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party dropped its hostile tone towards the Eurosceptic UKIP party on Saturday after it lost over 200 seats in local elections and a survey suggested it would lose a national vote next year.
The UK Independence Party, which wants Britain to leave the European Union and for immigration to be tightly restricted, won the fourth biggest number of seats in Thursday's local elections, notching up its largest gains in such a vote ever.
It took seats from all three main political parties including the opposition Labour party, which came first but did not win as emphatically as it had hoped.
"We should show the highest respect for those who go out and cast their vote and respect too those who cast their vote for another party. That includes those who voted for UKIP," George Osborne, Chancellor and a top Cameron ally, told a conference of grassroots Conservatives in London.
A different voting system and an expected higher turnout means UKIP will struggle to win many seats in a national election next year.
But its current success and expected strong showing in European election results on Sunday is spooking the established parties which see UKIP as an agent of disruption.
UKIP siphoned some support from Labour, polling showed, but took most of its votes from the Conservatives, stoking fears among Cameron and his allies it could split the vote in next year's national election making it hard for them to win.
Before the vote, Cameron accused UKIP of saying "appalling" and "deeply unpleasant things" about immigration, which he has promised but failed to reduce. In 2006, Cameron dismissed UKIP as a bunch of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists".
However, Osborne, one of the party's chief strategists, struck a different tone on Saturday as he sought to woo UKIP voters ahead of next year's national election by telling them a vote for the anti-EU party would let Labour win power.
"There are too many people who share our values but did not feel able to vote for us," he said.
"We're going to do what I believe the public wants us to do – listen, respond, and deliver. Listen to the legitimate concerns people have about our economy, about immigration and welfare, about our schools and about Europe."
Voters were justifiably angry, he said, suggesting UKIP had drawn much of its support from anxious working class people.
However, he ruled out an electoral pact with UKIP and made it clear he disagreed with their policies.
An unusually comprehensive opinion poll published on Saturday of over 26,000 voters in 26 constituencies regarded as decisive for the outcome of next year's national vote showed Osborne's party has its work cut out if it is to retain power.
The poll, commissioned by Michael Ashcroft, a former deputy chairman of the Conservative party, said there had been a 6.5 percent swing to Labour from the Conservatives since 2010 in the 26 battleground areas, where support for the Conservatives and Labour is finely balanced.
Labour would enjoy a comfortable majority if a national vote was held today taking 83 seats from Cameron's party, it said.
With most of the results for Thursday's local elections in England counted, a tally showed that Labour had won 338 new seats and UKIP 161 new seats. The Conservatives had lost 231 seats and the Liberal Democrats 307 seats.
The scale of the defeat for the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the country's two-party coalition, prompted some activists to start an online petition suggesting it was time for the party's leader Nick Clegg to be replaced.
Even though Labour won the local contest there was also some disquiet within its ranks that it had lost seats in some of its traditional strongholds to UKIP and not made even better gains. Much of the criticism was focused on its leader, Ed Miliband.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)
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