Blair braced as voters go to polls

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Indy Politics

Prime Minister Tony Blair dreamt up the idea of giving London its first elected mayor, and he devised a convoluted Labour Party nomination process that eliminated the candidate he least wanted to get the job.

But today, as polls opened in drizzly cool weather, voters appeared likely to elect the very man Blair tried so desperately to stop - left-wing Ken Livingstone, running as an independent and a thorn in the prime minister's side.

Across England, voters were also deciding 3,337 seats on 152 local councils, with the results serving as a barometer of the popularity of Blair's 3-year-old government.

The week before the election, polls showed the man known as "Red Ken" with 51 percent support in the mayoral race, so far ahead of the Conservative Party's Steve Norris' 17 percent that one major betting agency stopped taking wagers. Labour's candidate, former Health Secretary Frank Dobson, stood at just 14 percent.

The mayor will serve as an ambassador for the capital's 7.25 million residents, oversee a 3.3 billion pound budget and have responsibilities that include the police, transportation, fire and emergency services, but only limited tax-raising powers.

The position and a new 25-member London Assembly, also to be elected Thursday, supplants a system of governance by 32 individual boroughs and several citywide authorities. Blair created the structure as part of his program of returning some powers to regional and local governments.

Analysts say how the Blair administration deals with a potential Mayor Livingstone - expelled from the Party for entering the election, after promising not to do so - could affect the party's power base.

"It's a really major disaster," said Patrick Dunleavy, government professor at the London School of Economics. "The big problem for Blair is that if he keeps Livingstone outside the Labour Party, the mayor could become a focus of left-of-Labor sentiment. ... But if he lets Livingstone back in the party, he becomes a very important internal organising force."

In the 1980s, Livingstone led London's last metropolitan government, the Greater London Council. The council was abolished in 1986 by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, one of Livingstone's favourite targets.

The two biggest problems facing the new mayor are the overburdened Metropolitan Police and the city's underwhelming transport system.

"Livingstone has a strong reputation as a person who did do something about transport, which is more than the other candidates can say," Dunleavy said, noting that Livingstone's maverick qualities have appeal throughout the electorate.

Analysts noted that Norris, a former Tory transportation minister who gained notoriety for having had five mistresses, could slip by Livingstone if enough Labour supporters among London's 5 million eligible voters don't bother to go to the polls.

On Wednesday, Norris appealed for voters who want to send a message to Blair to deliver it through him instead of Livingstone.

"The best way to give Tony Blair a bloody nose is to vote for me," Norris said. "Yes, a vote for Ken Livingstone represents a bloody nose for the prime minister as well - but it also screws up the city."

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