London (CNSNews.com) - Voters in England are going to the polls on Thursday to elect several thousand local government representatives while, in London, the contest for the capital's first-ever directly elected mayor is underway.
A third contest being held simultaneously has the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties battling it out in a closely-fought by-election to replace a Conservative member of parliament who died in a fire several months ago.
About 20 million of Britain's 43 million registered voters have the right to vote today in an election widely seen as a barometer of voter trends ahead of the next general election in about a year's time.
Livingstone A Sure Thing for London
London's voters are electing not only their first mayor but also the members of the new metropolitan government body, the 25-member Greater London Assembly.
In what will come as a personal blow to Prime Minister Tony Blair, Ken Livingstone, a controversial but popular left-winger, nicknamed "Red Ken" because of his full beard and a politician kicked out of the Labor Party for mounting an independent challenge, is expected to win the mayoral contest.
Running in second place, according to the most recent polls, is the Conservative candidate, Steven Norris. Labor's official nominee and Blair's choice, former health secretary Frank Dobson, is running a distant third with Susan Kramer of the Liberal Democrats fourth.
Two traditionally pro-Labor tabloid newspapers Thursday urged their readers to vote for Norris to prevent Livingstone from winning.
Local Election to Show Trends
While much attention is on the London contest, the election to fill more than 3,000 seats in 152 English local authorities is the race the parties will be watching most closely: The opposition Conservatives predict a swing away from Labor, calling it "a party in retreat."
Nearly 10,000 candidates are on the ballots in the local polls. Analysts say the Conservatives need to gain about 400 seats to show that they can mount a credible challenge in the next election.
The campaign has been dominated by two issues on which Conservative leader William Hague has come out fighting and been attacked for it by opponents who have accused him of lurching to the right.
Hague has criticized the government for allowing the country to be "flooded" by foreigners seeking political asylum, many of whom he says are "bogus."
And on crime, Hague called for a change in the law to give the benefit of the doubt to homeowners who, in the process of protecting their property against criminals, injure or kill them.
Hague has shrugged off criticism - including some from within his own party - saying the two issues are of deep concern to voters, no matter their political persuasion.
"These are not right wing themes. Labor voters, people who voted for Liberal Democrats in the past, are saying to me these are the sort of things you should be raising," he told a radio interview.
"These people are not right-wingers. They are not extreme right-wingers. These are things people across the country are worried about," Hague added.
The conservative Daily Telegraph praised Hague's stance, saying he had "made it his business to find out what is worrying people, in this instance mainly crime and asylum seekers, and established a significantly different position on these issues from those of the other parties.
"Most important of all, he has managed to say things on both subjects that have both struck a chord and been right in themselves," the newspaper said.
The last two days of the campaign were marked by political arguments arising from rioting in central London on May Day.
A breakaway group from an anti-capitalist demonstration trashed a McDonalds restaurant and vandalized a statue of Winston Churchill as well as the country's most important memorial to its war dead.
Hague attacked the government over police handling of the situation and called for a ban on "this annual display of violence" for next year.