RUMOURS of the death of voters' interest in politics may be exaggerated. If there is one thing the leaders of all political parties could agree on in the wake of Thursday's local council elections, it was the welcoming news that turnouts were higher than the dismal showing across Hampshire last year.

In Winchester, a staggering 48.8 per cent of voters - nearly half the electorate - bothered to vote, compared with just 39.76 per cent last year.

The turnout in Fareham was also up, with 40.3 per cent casting their votes - a rise of just under five per cent on last year.

Voter participation in Eastleigh increased from 31.5 per cent to 41.4 per cent.

Even in traditional low-turnout Southampton, 31.6 per cent of voters cast their ballots compared with a lowly 29 per cent last year.

Senior figures from all three main political parties across Hampshire told the Daily Echo that postal voting had encouraged more people to participate in the poll.

Keith House, the Liberal Democrat leader of Southampton City Council, said: "Postal voting did contribute.

"We had a significant rise. Our postal voting figures in Eastleigh doubled."

He added that "intense competition" in a number of wards had also contributed to the high turnout.

He said: "There have been a number of quite sharp political competitions."

A victorious Councillor Sean Woodward, Tory leader of Fareham Borough Council, added: "This year we had 6,000 postal votes as opposed to 2,000 last year.

"The more people who take an interest in local politics the better, because local councils can have far more influence on people's lives than a member of Parliament."

Southampton City Council's Labour group leader, Councillor June Bridle, said she welcomed the increased turnout, although it was still only one-third of electors.

She said: "I am personally an advocate of compulsory voting but I am delighted the vote has gone up. The ability for everyone to have a postal vote is having quite an effect."

In the end, the results were better than expected for an embattled Labour Party.

In spite of Labour voters punishing the party and Tony Blair for the war in Iraq, Labour's results across the county were less catastrophic than party workers had feared.

After the dust finally settled yesterday, Labour had lost just two seats in Southampton and conceded one to the victorious Liberal Democrats in Eastleigh.

In true blue Fareham, the red rose party failed to win a single council seat, with the Tories gaining three seats at the expense of the Liberal Democrats.

But in truth, Fareham has always been something of a "no-go" area for Labour anyway, so the result will hardly surprise party managers.

In Winchester, the Lib Dems had a terrible result, losing overall control of the city council for the first time in years.

Jubilant Conservatives made four gains, with further success only being prevented by the crucial intervention of the single- issue United Kingdom Independence Party.

Liberal Democrats tightened their grip in Eastleigh, and also held on to power in Southampton, which the party captured from Labour last year after becoming the biggest group in the city.

All in all, then, a pretty mixed bag with plenty for all the three main political parties to ponder.

For the Tories, question marks still hang over Michael Howard's leadership after the party failed to make the huge breakthrough it needs to wrest power from Labour at next year's general election.

Tory strategists will be thinking hard about how to appeal to some of its core voters, who have switched to the United Kingdom Independence Party.

For Labour, the question is whether Tony Blair can lead them to a historic third term, or if the Prime Minister has been fatally tainted by his association with George Bush and the Iraq war.

For the Liberal Democrats, the key issue is if the party can ever convince voters they are the party for national, and not just local, government.

The minority parties, such as the Greens and the United Kingdom Independence Party, had little cause for celebration on Friday, having failed to capture a single council seat in Hampshire in the council elections.

But they will be hoping for better things come tomorrow's European election results.

The rest of us will have to wait and see.