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Coalition expects mid-term bruising
Voters across Britain are expected to dish out a mid-term bruising to the Westminster coalition parties as they head to the polls.
Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are braced to lose hundreds of the around 5,000 seats at stake on 181 local councils across England, Scotland and Wales.
But the Tories will hope for a better result in the capital, where Mayor Boris Johnson is defying the national trend to remain favourite to retain City Hall.
Mayors will also be chosen in Liverpool and Salford, with 10 other major English cities holding referendums on whether to adopt the system of directly-elected civic leaders.
The complex electoral map is completed by ballots for the London Assembly.
Recent opinion polls have shown a clear lead for Labour - often in double digits - as the Government has wrestled with a month-long string of difficulties.
Respected election experts Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University have said Labour's advantage should translate into a dramatic gain of as many as 700 seats.
That number was seized on by Tory Communities Secretary Eric Pickles who said Labour could reach the target "just by turning up" as he attempted to minimise the impact of any heavy defeat.
Most of the contested seats were last up for grabs in 2008 - when the Conservatives made significant gains and Labour were hit hard.
In turn Labour, in a bid to accentuate any such major victory, suggested its hope was for between 300 to 350 gains in England and 100 in Wales - with continued losses to the SNP in Scotland.
The Liberal Democrats are braced for a second consecutive year of losses though hope to avoid a repeat of the hammering they suffered last year and do not fear coming fourth behind Ukip.
The three main party leaders mounted a final push on Wednesday, with Prime Minister David Cameron appealing to voters not to punish the Tories for Britain's economic woes.
The Prime Minister urged people to focus on local rather than national issues in the wake of a turbulent spell for the coalition.
"I recognise it's a difficult time for families, it's a tough time for families," he said.
"I just hope that people will look at these elections and recognise it's about electing your local council - who is going to keep the council tax down, who's going to provide value for money, who's going to look after your area?"
Opposition leader Ed Miliband promised that Labour would "stand up for the many" rather than the "rich and powerful" he said were the priority of the coalition.
"Labour is showing that we can make different choices, decisions which help people through these tough times," he said on the campaign trail.
And Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said every Liberal Democrat councillor elected was a "step towards a more liberal country" in a letter to activists lauding the party's town hall record.
"Our record on freezing council tax, protecting local libraries and giving pay rises for the lowest paid council workers shows the difference we make when we run local councils."
While many councils will begin counts after the polls close tonight, helping to give a clear picture of the parties' performance, a large number have delayed until tomorrow.
A delayed count will also mean a wait to find out the result of the highest-profile contest as Labour's Ken Livingstone attempts to seize back the London mayoralty he lost four years ago.
The final decision of Londoners is not expected to be known until Friday evening.