British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, his popularity plunging and his reputation for economic competence under fire, faced his first electoral test on Thursday since taking over from Tony Blair in June.
The local council seats up for grabs in England and Wales, alongside a high-profile clash to pick the next mayor of London, were last contested in 2004 when public anger over the Iraq war was running high.
The ruling Labour Party, which took Britain into the conflict alongside the United States, did badly then. If Brown loses even more ground this time, it would deal a further blow to his standing and heighten speculation about a potential challenge to his leadership of the party.
Governments traditionally suffer a bloody nose in mid-term polls and Brown does not have to call a parliamentary election until 2010, by which time he will be hoping the global credit crunch will have eased.
He got a glimmer of good news on Thursday after the Bank of England signalled the worst of the crunch might be over and said banks were being too cautious in their lending.
Brown’s standing soared after he took over from Blair after 10 years as finance minister overseeing steady economic growth in Britain.
But the media and the opposition accused him of dithering over calling a possible snap election in October and he has also been beset by party in-fighting, economic turmoil and industrial unrest.
On Wednesday, Brown acknowledged he had made mistakes over his abolition of a 10 pence tax band. He was forced to make concessions after a party revolt.
About 4 000 seats on 160 councils across England and Wales are at stake in the local elections. The most important clash is in London where former editor turned Conservative parliamentarian Boris Johnson and maverick Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone are involved in a closely fought mayoral election.
Victory for Johnson would be a major boost for Conservative leader David Cameron who will try to end a Labour run of three successive triumphs at the next parliamentary election.
At stake in the mayoral election is the responsibility for a £11-billion ($22-billion) budget and the running of one of the world’s leading financial centres in the run-up to London hosting the 2012 Olympics.
Crime and transport are key concerns for Londoners.
”What’s worrying me is why youngsters are resorting to using weapons to settle disputes. It’s never been like this before. Police are not on the beat, they are in cars. They are no longer streetwise,” said Shingi Njopera, casting his vote in London. – Reuters