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Nick Clegg licks his wounds after LibDem bloodbath at the polls

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Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg speaks to reporters outside his house on May 6, 2011 in London, England.

Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg speaks to reporters outside his house on May 6, 2011 in London, England.

Peter Macdiarmid

Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg speaks to reporters outside his house on May 6, 2011 in London, England.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg admitted today that the Liberal Democrats had taken a "real knock" after a night of heavy election losses.

With the party also facing defeat later today in the referendum on voting reform, Mr Clegg admitted they had lessons to learn.

But he insisted that the results would not affect the Lib Dems' support for the coalition Government with their Conservative partners.

"In politics, as in life, sometimes you get these big ups and downs and we have taken a real knock last night," he said as he left his London home.

"We will need to learn the lessons from what we heard on the doorstep. But we need to get up, dust ourselves down and move on, because we have got a really big job to do.

"We need to provide optimism, hope and jobs for people up and down the country. That is the job we started and that is the job we are going to see through."

The Lib Dems lost swathes of seats in former council strongholds in the north of England to Labour, while haemorrhaging support to the Scottish National Party north of the border.

"Clearly what happened last night was that in especially those parts of the country - Scotland, Wales, the great cities of the North, where there are real anxieties about the deficit reduction plans that we are having to put in place - we are clearly getting the brunt of the blame," Mr Clegg said.

"For many families in those parts of the country especially, there are also some very strong memories of what life was like under Thatcherism in the 1980s and somehow a fear that that is what we are returning to.

"What we need to do is to redouble our efforts to not only explain but show precisely one of the reasons the Liberal Democrats are in government is so that we don't go backwards as a country, but that we go forwards."

It was also a difficult night for Labour, who lost 12 seats in the Scottish Parliament as the SNP made big gains, putting First Minister Alex Salmond on course for an overall majority at Holyrood.

At the same time, Labour failed to make the sort of gains in the English council elections which some had been predicting.

Labour leader Ed Miliband insisted that he was "pleased" with the results in England and Wales but said he was "disappointed" with the outcome in Scotland.

"We will have to learn our own lessons from what the public is saying to us there," he said as he left his home in London.

Overall, he said voters had sent a clear message rejecting the Government's strategy.

"What you have seen is voters sending a clear message to this Government and the Liberal Democrats in particular," he said.

"People have said 'This is not what we voted for at the last general election'. I think the right thing to do is to listen to what people are saying."

Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted it had been a disappointing night for the Labour leader and the results did not suggest that he was on course to regain power.

"He is not doing as well as I was doing when I was leader of the opposition, which wasn't brilliantly well," Mr Hague said, referring to his ill-fated time as Conservative leader following Labour's 1997 landslide.

He rejected charges by former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown that the Conservatives had backtracked on assurances given over the referendum on the introduction of the alternative vote (AV) system for Westminster elections.

"We have held the referendum that we promised to hold. We have held it on the day that we promised to hold it, so there has been no breach of faith," Mr Hague said.

Lib Dem MP Bob Russell, who has been a vocal critic of some of the coalition's policies, gave his full backing to Mr Clegg.

He said the party had been seen as a "whipping boy" by the electorate but insisted that was to be expected in government.

The Colchester MP said the party had bucked the national trend in his area but added: "It's regrettable that what happens at a national level affects what happens in town hall elections.

"But there's no change there, that's always been the case. Unfortunately whereas in the past the Liberal Democrats have been the beneficiaries from the government of the day, in these elections the Liberal Democrats have been the whipping boys."

Responding to Lord Ashdown's prediction of a change in the relationship between the parties, he said: "I think there's always been a business arrangement.

"I have spent 40 years opposing the Conservatives and I haven't changed overnight."

He added that he was "backing Nick Clegg 100%" and called on others in the party to support the leader they elected.

Mr Russell said it was "bizarre" that support had gone to Labour, who had left the economic legacy the coalition was tackling.

"It's like rewarding the bank robbers rather than the policemen who caught them.

"It's just bizarre that people have such short memories."

Belfast Telegraph