London set for Muslim mayor as elections shake UK parties

London was poised to become the first EU capital with a Muslim mayor Friday as Sadiq Khan took the lead in elections that saw his opposition Labour party suffer nationwide setbacks.

AFP| Last Updated: May 06, 2016, 20:55 PM IST

London: London was poised to become the first EU capital with a Muslim mayor Friday as Sadiq Khan took the lead in elections that saw his opposition Labour party suffer nationwide setbacks.

Khan was well ahead of his main opponent, Conservative Zac Goldsmith, in first preference votes after a bitter campaign during which the Goldsmith camp sought to link Khan to Islamic extremists.

The race to replace Boris Johnson pitched two very different candidates against each other -- Khan, the son of a Pakistani bus driver and a seamstress, against Goldsmith, whose father was a wealthy financier.

A Khan victory would offer some cheer for embattled Labour chief Jeremy Corbyn after local election losses elsewhere in England failed to dispel questions over the veteran socialist`s leadership.

Corbyn, who has faced opposition from centrists in his party since becoming leader last year, insisted his party had "hung on" and surpassed expectations.

"All across England last night we were getting predictions that we were going to lose councils. We didn`t," he said.

"We hung on and we grew support in a lot of places."

With results in from 110 out of 124 councils, Labour had 55, down one, and 1,176 seats, down 25.

Prime Minister David Cameron`s Conservatives had control of an unchanged 30 councils and 650 seats, down 23.

A BBC projection suggested that Labour would win 31 percent of the vote share nationally compared to 30 percent for the Conservatives.

"The Labour Party is in serious trouble, although the likely election of a Labour candidate to be London mayor will distract from that," said Matthew Goodwin, politics professor at Kent University.

"The Labour Party is now third in Scotland for the first time since 1910 and it has failed to make a serious impression in southern England".North of the border, Nicola Sturgeon, head of the Scottish National Party (SNP), will lead the separatist party into its third successive government, with devolved powers over most domestic policy issues.

However, she played down talk of a fresh independence referendum to follow the unsuccessful one in 2014 after the SNP lost its outright majority, which will force it to work with a smaller party like the Greens.

"The SNP will always make our case with passion, with patience and with respect but our aim is to persuade not to divide," Sturgeon said.

Aside from the SNP`s win, the other big story in Scotland was the success of the Scottish Conservatives, who came second with 31 seats.

The party has been deeply unpopular in Scotland since the 1980s premiership of Margaret Thatcher but its fortunes have turned around under current leader Ruth Davidson.

Davidson is a charismatic and openly gay 37-year-old whose cheery, no-nonsense style and proficient use of social media has fuelled her party`s success.The voting day dubbed "Super Thursday" in which 45 million Britons were eligible to vote came after a bitter few weeks of sniping between the Conservatives and Labour.

Corbyn set up an inquiry into anti-Semitism and racism in Labour after former London mayor Ken Livingstone was suspended for claiming Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler supported Zionism.

Several other Labour politicians were also suspended.

Cameron is also grappling with deep splits in his party ahead of the June 23 referendum on Britain`s membership of the European Union.

But the prime minister sounded an optimistic note as he met activists Friday.

He called the results "remarkable" and accused Labour of being "so obsessed with their left-wing causes" that they had "lost touch" with voters.

The mayoral campaign has been especially ugly, with Khan, a former human rights lawyer, strongly denying he misstepped by appearing alongside alleged Islamic extremists.

Goldsmith, meanwhile, was accused of "dog whistle" campaigning, including by some from within his own party.

"He started to equate people of conservative religious views with sympathising with terrorism," Andrew Boff, leader of the Conservative group in the London Assembly, told the BBC.

"That sent a message out to many of the communities in London that`s very difficult to justify."