LONDON -- London's voters went to the polls Thursday to choose their next mayor from among seven candidates in what has largely become a clash between two oversized personalities: extroverted Conservative incumbent Boris Johnson and his archrival, combative Labor Party politician Ken Livingstone, who became the city's first elected mayor in 2000.
Local elections were going on across Britain, but the eye-catching show was the fight for London’s leader. With the city this summer hosting the Olympic Games and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations amid rising prices, unemployment, housing shortages and social benefit cuts, the future mayor faces an uphill task. Among the challenges: regulating policies and budgets for the city’s police, transportation and emergency services, education, housing and business development.
Latest polls by market research company YouGov put Johnson ahead with 53% of the vote to Livingstone's 47%, a contrast to national polls that show the Conservatives under Prime Minister David Cameron lagging well behind the opposition Labor Party.
Results in London were not expected to be announced until Friday.
In an unsurprising endorsement of his fellow Conservative, Cameron urged Londoners in an interview with the Evening Standard to “make absolutely sure you go out and vote for Boris on Thursday.”
“Boris is a great politician, he is someone I greatly admire,” he insisted, despite being reminded of reports that Johnson could be a potential rival for Cameron’s job. “But the first thing is to let him carry on with the very good work he is doing for London.”
Johnson’s tenure has seen London’s transit fares soar, cuts in government-funded services and -- despite claims that official crime figures are lower -- riots across London last summer that raised questions about policing methods and relations between the public and police.
His campaign promises have included promoting more job opportunities largely related to the Olympics and new transportation projects, including new rail systems across London, more street and neighborhood policing, investments in local business ventures and new affordable housing.
Livingstone, who is widely known as "Red Ken" for his leftist politics, vows to restore maintenance allowances for low-income students and rent controls and rent reductions for government–assisted housing tenants, as well as to boost police numbers.
In local elections across Britain 10 major cities will decide whether to have elected mayors, a relatively new position in a country where cities are usually ruled by local councils headed by council leaders.
The proposal has divided Britons, with many seeing salaries for mayors and their staffs as a further drain on dwindling resources.
Cameron insisted in his interview that he was “giving the country the chance to have many more Borises. I want a Boris in Birmingham, I want a Boris in Leeds, I want a Boris in Bradford.” He added: "They don’t all have to be members of the Johnson family.”
-- Janet Stobart
Photo: London Mayor Boris Johnson and family members leave a North London polling station after casting their votes in the election for the next mayor of London on Thursday. Credit: Oli Scarff / Getty Images