Sadiq Khan Looks Poised to Become London's First Muslim Mayor Amid Projected Low Turnout

Khan has a nine percent lead over main rival Conservative Zac Goldsmith, as Labour faces potential losses in English local elections.

Britain's Labour Party Candidate for Mayor of London Sadiq Khan gestures during an event in London, Britain March 23, 2016.
Reuters

DPA - London appears set to elect its first Muslim mayor Thursday as polling for regional and local assemblies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland started, with the winds blowing in Sadiq Khan's favor.

Millions of people were expected to vote in ballots for some 2,700 seats on 124 local councils, three regional assemblies, several city mayors and 41 police commissioners.

Most of the electioneering has focused on local issues. Nonetheless, the polls in England and Wales are a test of popularity for the two biggest political parties, the Conservatives and Labour, and provide a barometer of the durability of the right-wing UK Independence Party.

But turnout is likely to be even lower than usual for local elections. Many voters appear to be reluctant to head out to vote in May when they already expect to do so for a referendum on June 23 on whether the nation should remain part of the European Union.

Turnout is expected to be around 37 per cent in London's elections for the city mayor and members of a regional assembly, and could be even lower in some local elections.

Opinion polls this week put Labour's Sadiq Khan on course to become London's first Muslim mayor, despite a row about the Conservatives' repeated references to his religious background and a claim by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron that Khan had associated with extremists.

Many analysts say Khan's campaign has also survived a recent media focus on his party's infighting due to anti-Semitic remarks by two prominent Labour politicians.

In London's system of first and second preferences, Khan has 35 percent of first preferences, with his main rival, Conservative Zac Goldsmith, on 26 percent, according to an Opinium survey for the London Evening Standard.

Taking account of second preferences, which are tallied if no candidate has more than 50 percent of fist preferences, Khan leads by 57 percent to Goldsmith's 43 percent.

Labour faces the biggest threat in the English local elections, which is a change in tone after many observers had expected the spotlight to focus firmly on divisions on a British exit from the EU - or Brexit - among Cameron's Conservatives.

Labour could lose up to 150 seats nationwide, although few councils are likely to switch control, according to forecasts by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, who run the Elections Centre at the University of Plymouth.

The party is most vulnerable in poorer northern areas where anti-EU and anti-migration sentiment is high.