National leaders watchful as Britons vote in local polls

May 1st, 2008 - 4:08 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Gordon Brown
By Dipankar De Sarkar
London, May 1 (IANS) Millions of people voted in London and the provinces of England and Wales Thursday in local elections that most analysts said were a key test of the British government’s popularity. After 12 years in power, the Labour government was bracing to meet a stiff challenge thrown by the main party of opposition, the Conservative party, at Thursday’s polls.

Elections are being held for the key high-profile job of London Mayor, as well as for the London Assembly that helps run one of the world’s largest cities.

In addition, Britons are voting to fill 4,102 seats in 159 local authority councils in England and Wales.

The electoral exercise comes nearly a year after Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as British prime minister - a period that has also seen the rise of the Conservative party under its leader David Cameron.

Also thrown into the battle is Britain’s third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, which has grown in importance amid some predictions that the next general election will return a hung parliament.

Most election analysts said the outcome of Thursday’s polls will point which way the nation will vote in the next general election, due by the summer of 2010.

They said comparisons will invariably be drawn with the last local government elections held under Blair in 2004, when the former premier was facing mounting criticism over Britain’s invasion of Iraq.

“If it ends up being worse than 2004, Gordon Brown will have the unenviable position of having managed to secure an even worse result than Tony Blair did, and it’s quite likely that the criticism is going to rise,” said John Curtice of Strathclyde University.

Equally, psephologists said the Conservative Party under Cameron must wrest at least 200 seats in order to pose a serious challenge to Labour at the next general election, with gains numbering fewer than 100 showing the party was performing badly.

However, some commentators are reluctant to speak in generalised terms, saying the issues vary greatly from London to England to Wales and that the complexities mean Thursday’s polls are not a dress rehearsal for a general election.

“Savour the complexities. The 2010 general election will look very different,” Peter Riddell, a leading British political commentator, wrote in The Times.

The most keenly-watched of Thursday’s battles will be the one for the job of London mayor.

The three main rivals are Labour’s working class incumbent Ken Livingstone, who is bidding for his third straight term, his upper class Conservative opponent Boris Johnson, editor of the Spectator magazine, and Brian Paddick of the Liberal Democrats, an openly gay former policeman.

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