Voters went to the polls yesterday in local elections in England and Wales seen as a key test for embattled British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The polls include a high-profile contest for the mayor of London, where incumbent Ken Livingstone of the governing Labour Party is facing a stiff challenge from Conservative former journalist Boris Johnson.
Some 13,000 candidates are fighting for more than 4,000 seats on 159 municipal councils in England and Wales as well as the 25-member London Assembly.
Labour has seen support plummet to its lowest since former prime minister Margaret Thatcher?? heyday in the late 1980s after former prime minister Tony Blair stepped down last June and the local polls are seen as a harbinger for general elections in two years.
The capital is a big political prize: The mayor controls a budget of more than 瞿11 billion (US$22 billion) and policies that affect 7.5 million Londoners and the millions more who visit.
Victory for the Conservative Party over Livingstone would be a symbolic boost for the center-right Tories at a time when they are riding high in the opinion polls.
A third consecutive four-year term for Livingstone, however, could reassure center-left Labour that their recent dip in form is only temporary and they can recover before the country goes to the polls before May 2010.
Brown has himself recognized that the government has faced a hard time as the impact of the global credit crunch begins to bite, hitting the housing market and economic growth, alongside rising food and fuel prices.
Political analysts predict that Labour will do well or better than the last time the seats were contested in 2004, when they came third in the national vote.