Britain gears up for keenly watched local elections
Campaigning wound up on Wednesday for local elections in Britain, in the first vote since the coronavirus outbreak and after Brexit took full effect.
Most of the elections were meant to be held a year ago but were delayed by the pandemic. Polls open at 7:00 am (0600 GMT) on Thursday, with results expected from Friday.
- Scotland -
The pro-independence camp has been gripped by infighting ahead of the elections, and polls suggest the Scottish National Party (SNP) led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon could fall just short of an overall majority of 65 seats in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
But the SNP can count on support from the Greens and possibly from the breakaway Alba party, led by Sturgeon's former mentor turned foe Alex Salmond.
If a majority in the new parliament backs independence, Sturgeon says British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would have no "moral justification" to prevent a second referendum after a failed bid in 2014, arguing that Brexit has now changed the calculus.
However, even if electoral maths gives the pro-independence camp control, polls indicate waning popular support in Scotland for the idea of breaking away, and Johnson remains adamant the 2014 referendum was a "once in a generation" vote.
- Test for Johnson -
The vote is the first electoral test for Johnson against Keir Starmer since the latter's election as main opposition Labour party leader last year.
Johnson has been dogged by scandal in recent weeks, including over the luxury redecoration of his Downing Street flat, and faces questions about his response to the pandemic.
With more than 127,000 deaths, Britain has one of the world's worst death tolls from Covid-19. But Johnson remains popular in polling, on the back of a successful mass vaccination programme.
He is also counting on his boast that he "got Brexit done" by finally taking Britain out of the European Union, after years of political paralysis, although the costs of Brexit are showing up in disruption to cross-Channel trade.
- Hartlepool -
As well as local elections, Hartlepool in northeast England is voting for a new member of parliament in London, after its Labour incumbent resigned over claims of sexual harassment.
Some 250 jobs at the city's Liberty Steel plant are at risk after the collapse of finance firm Greensill, whose failure has dragged in former prime minister David Cameron.
Retaining Hartlepool is pivotal for Starmer after the Tories grabbed a string of seats across Labour's so-called "Red Wall" heartland in northern England at the last general election in December 2019, when Brexit was the dominant issue.
If the Conservatives pull off a surprise win, Johnson will be vindicated in his loudly stated claims that voters do not care about stories from the "Westminster bubble", and questions will resurface about Starmer's leadership.
- London -
Labour's Sadiq Khan looks on course for re-election on Thursday, five years after becoming Britain's best-known Muslim politician when he succeeded Johnson as mayor of London.
Khan's main opponent is the Conservative Shaun Bailey, whose family roots are in Jamaica and who would become one of Europe's most prominent black politicians if elected.
- Regional mayors -
Mayors will be elected for seven city regions in England, including the West Midlands which takes in Britain's second city, Birmingham, Greater Manchester, and the conurbation around Liverpool.
The results will be closely watched for any inroads by Labour against the Conservatives, or if Johnson's party manages to hold on to its 2019 general election gains and at previous local elections after the 2016 Brexit referendum.
- North Korean defector -
Jihyun Park is unique in one regard: no other candidate fled the brutal privations of a North Korean prison camp.
Thirteen years after finding refuge in Britain, Park is standing to be a Conservative councillor in Bury, near Manchester, northwest England.
"The UK people welcomed me to this land and I finally found my freedom. I want to pay back," she told AFP in February.