STEPHEN LEWIS talks to a refreshed Dave Merrett about Labour's route back to power in York...

THE night of May 1 wasn't, Dave Merrett admits, the best of his life. Some under-statement. On that night, the Labour group he had led for ten months was swept from power in York after 20 years by a Liberal Democrat landslide. Labour was reduced to little more than a rump on the city council, with just 15 seats compared to 29 for the Lib Dems.

Hardly a ringing endorsement of his post-Rod Hills leadership. Three weeks on, however, the leader of the city's Labour group looks relaxed and unworrried.

He has just returned from his first holiday in a year and a half, he explains. And it's not as if the election result was a surprise.

"We had a good idea what was coming. Not necessarily the extent of the result, which was a bit worse than expected. But canvassing had been very difficult."

He attributes Labour's failure to a variety of factors. Popular anger at Tony Blair's war with Iraq was one. Then there was council tax. York still has the 14th lowest council tax in the country, he insists - but after recent successive large rises, it may not always seem that way to council voters.

There was also, he thinks, an element of a mid-term bloody nose for Tony Blair at work: plus the fact that after 20 years of Labour, many voters simply felt it was time for a change. "I think there's no doubt that there was some of that," he says.

Then there was the Rod Hills effect. The circumstances surrounding the former leader's departure certainly had an impact, Coun Merrett says. "There was a lot of negative stuff around," he says. "Some of that negativity has clearly attached to the group."

Given all this, he insists, the feeling in the Labour camp as the election results began to come in that night was surprisingly upbeat. "We realised that we were not going to win," he says. "But there was quite a good spirit in the sense that we had worked hard. We knew we were fighting on the back foot, but genuinely felt that we had done the best we could."

That may be so, but the harsh reality remains that if they are to regain power in York in the future, Labour has a long road to travel.

The party doesn't appear to blame Dave Merrett for that. Although he could hardly have become leader in more difficult circumstances, he insists that he must shoulder the responsibility.

"I was the leader of a group that had not delivered what the people of York wanted," he says. Nevertheless, the night following the election defeat, he was unanimously re-elected group leader. "People seemed to feel I had done a good job in difficult circumstances."

The challenge now is to build the Labour group first into a credible opposition - and then into a serious contender for power in four years.

As an opposition, he insists, his group will work with the council for the benefit of the people of York - in a way he claims the Liberal Democrats did not.

It's the first time he allows any rancour to show.

The Lib Dems, he says, deliberately obstructed Labour in its last few months and years by bogging council officers down with pointless requests for information.

"A very significant amount of officer time was being used up," he says. "They were bogging things down, delaying things, then criticising us for it. On the scale that they were doing it, I think it was quite unreasonable."

He also accuses the Lib Dems of winning the election by deceit, by implying they would do things they never actually made a commitment to. "They raised enormous expectations, and I don't see how they are going to meet these without some fairly significant rises in council tax," he says.

That may, he suggests, be their undoing. When asked what the Labour group's strategy is for winning back power, he talks about analysing what the people of York told them on the doorstep at the last election, and learning to listen better.

How well they do will also depend, to an extent, on how Labour delivers at a national level. But the key will be the way the Lib Dems perform in York.

"Four years from now, the key questions will be whether the Lib Dems have delivered what people think they have promised them; will they have done it at a reasonable cost; and what will York's council tax be compared to other authorities," he says.

"I can guarantee that it won't be 14th from the bottom. It will be a lot higher."

Updated: 11:06 Wednesday, May 21, 2003