Boris bucks the trend as Britain swings left

Although the United Kingdom finds itself turning to the Labour party, the Conservatives manage to hold on to London.

    Boris bucks the trend as Britain swings left
    London mayor Boris Johnson once described George W Bush as a 'cross-eyed Texan warmonger' [AP]

    Boris Johnson bucked the trend on a day when Britain swung to the left.

    The Eton-educated Conservative is a charismatic figure and his re-election to serve another four years as London Mayor gave his party electoral cover for an otherwise grim set of local election results.

    The Labour Party chalked up a string of victories across England and Wales, gaining 823 council seats and taking control of major cities including Birmingham, Southampton and Plymouth.

    Labour's national share of the vote was 38 per cent, with the ruling Conservatives trailing on 31 per cent and their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats on 16 per cent.

    These results offer a glimpse into the way the political wind is blowing in the UK.

    They come after weeks of bad headlines for David Cameron's government about fuel shortages, the faltering economy and its relationship with the Murdoch press.

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    Even the weather is miserable. The country has just experienced its wettest April since records began.

    By winning in London, Johnson offered the prime minister a glimmer of sunshine, but the Tories' blonde bombshell is a one-off.

    Dr Nicola McEwan, Co-Director of the Institute of Governance at Edinburgh University, told Al Jazeera:

    "The mayoral election in London was much more about personality than party. Boris Johnson has been a popular mayor, though with just three percentage points separating the two leading candidates, the result was much closer than had been predicted."

    While most modern politicians are carefully polished, Johnson's unruly mop of hair and disheveled appearance makes him stand out. He is also famously gaffe-prone and forthright with his opinions.

    Describing George W Bush in an unsigned editorial of The Spectator magazine in 2003, he said: "The president is a cross-eyed Texan warmonger, unelected, inarticulate, who epitomises the arrogance of American foreign policy."

    At one time or another, Johnson has insulted half the country. He described Portsmouth as a city "full of drugs and obesity", and accused Liverpudlians of wallowing in "victim status" following the death of resident Ken Bigley, a British engineer who was beheaded by extremists in Iraq.

    None of this has harmed his popularity with Londoners and his re-election for a second term as mayor marks him out as potential rival to David Cameron for the Conservative leadership.

    Mid-term blues

    The speculation surrounding Johnson's future ambitions shows how UK politics is becoming more territorial. City Hall gives him an independent power base and a high media profile.

    In this respect he is similar to the Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond, who has a majority in the Scottish parliament. No previous British prime minister has had to deal with such powerful regional barons.

    The other big winner from the local elections was Labour leader Ed Miliband.

    In a message to party members, he said: "In Scotland, England and Wales, Labour is back winning elections.I am determined we make it a habit so we can change this country again."

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    There is little doubt that if the local election results were repeated in a General Election across Britain then they would produce a Labour majority. However, local elections are about electing councils - not governments.

    It is not unusual for ruling parties to suffer mid-term blues. Former Labour leaders Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock both enjoyed success in local elections, but neither went on to become prime minister.

    In the local elections in 1990, Labour won 44 per cent of the national vote and trounced the Conservatives with 33 per cent. This is a much bigger margin of victory than that achieved on Thursday, but two years later, voters swung back to the right and Labour lost the general election.

    What Miliband has gained is some much-needed momentum, and a platform on which to build a stronger organisational base. At election time, those newly elected councillors will be out knocking on doors and delivering leaflets.

    Celtic hearts and minds

    Labour's biggest boost came in what were once regarded as its Celtic heartlands.

    In Wales, the party won a thumping victory, gaining seats from every other party and taking control of the capital, Cardiff.

    And in Scotland, all eyes were on Glasgow, where the party fought-off a strong challenge from the Scottish Nationalists. Labour has held Scotland's largest city for more than 30 years - and losing it would have been a huge psychological blow.

    McEwen told Al Jazeera: "The SNP did very well in this election, electing more councillors across Scotland than any other party, and securing overall control of two local councils. But the party's gains are somewhat overshadowed by the result in Glasgow."

    She added: "The SNP had made a major breakthrough in Glasgow in the Scottish parliament election last year, and had hoped to emerge as the largest party in the council. There is no doubt that Labour's success in retaining the council with an overall majority marks a significant victory. Clearly, predictions of the death of Labour in Scotland after last year's election were simply wrong."

    Alex Salmond is set to launch his party's campaign for independence later this month. The results in Scotland were watched particularly closely because of what they might tell us about that referendum, which is due to be held in 2014.

    Despite its disappointment in Glasgow, the SNP won a bigger share of the national vote than Labour and now has more councillors than ever before. The opposition is more confident, but the nationalists have not yet stalled.

    The real story of the election in Scotland is the mauling given to the coalition parties. The increasing domination of the Scottish political scene by Labour and the SNP reinforces its distinctiveness from the rest of the UK.

    Voters punished the Liberal Democrats particularly severely for their toxic association with the Conservatives. In one part of Edinburgh, they were even beaten by a joke candidate dressed as a penguin.

    If the nationalists can make the referendum a poll on the popularity of David Cameron's Government, then Scots might well decide to go their own way.

    The prime minister can take some comfort, however, in the fact that he still has London.

    Follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter: @apmcfadyen

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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