LONDON (AP) – Labour Party politician Sadiq Khan, the son of a bus driver from Pakistan, led London’s mayoral race Friday, opening a lead over Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith that left him poised to be the city’s first Muslim mayor.
Labour was trounced in Scotland but lost fewer seats than many had expected elsewhere in local and regional elections that underscored Britain’s political divisions.
Khan won 44 percent of first-preference votes, compared to 35 percent for Goldsmith. Voters’ second preferences were being factored in to take one candidate over the 50 percent mark, and Khan’s victory was a strong statistical probability.
Even before the result was declared, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted congratulations to Khan on his apparent victory.
The race to replace Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson was marred by American-style negative campaigning and allegations of extremism and fear-mongering.
Goldsmith, a wealthy environmentalist, described Khan as “dangerous” and accused his opponent of giving “platforms, oxygen and even cover” to Islamic extremists – a charge repeated by Prime Minister David Cameron and other senior Conservatives.
Khan, who calls himself “the British Muslim who will take the fight to the extremists,” accused Goldsmith of trying to scare and divide voters in a proudly multicultural city of 8.6 million people – more than 1 million of them Muslims.
Labour was pushed to third place in Scotland – where it was once dominant.
The Conservatives under popular Scottish leader Ruth Davidson became the main opposition in Scotland’s Edinburgh-based parliament – an unprecedented situation in a region that had shunned the party for decades after the governments of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose policies cost thousands of jobs in mining and heavy industries.
The pro-independence Scottish National Party secured a third term in government in the county’s parliamentary elections, but failed by two seats to retain a majority.
SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon said the party had “won a clear and unequivocal mandate” and would form a minority government rather than seek a coalition.
The party remains a dominant force in Scottish politics, but Matthew Ashton, a politics expert at Nottingham Trent University, said the result was “evidence that their hold on power is beginning to slip.”
Thursday’s elections for local authorities and regional assemblies demonstrated the complexity of British politics in the final weeks before Britons vote on June 23 on whether the country should remain in the European Union.
The strength of Labour leader Corbyn is under particular scrutiny in this first nationwide poll since he became leader last year.
While Labour’s losses in Scotland were humiliating, the party fared less badly overall than many had predicted. It lost only a handful of council seats and held on to control of major English cities including Birmingham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland.
Corbyn said the party had “a lot of building to do” in Scotland, but said he was pleased with results in England.
“We hung on and we grew support in a lot of places,” he said.
The results will do little to soothe restive Labour lawmakers who think Corbyn’s left-wing policies are a turn-off for many voters.
Ashton said that critics who want to “use the results as leverage to call for a leadership challenge are likely to be disappointed.”
“Their argument that Labour should be doing better, though, especially considering Conservative divisions over Europe in recent weeks, will continue to resonate,” he said.
In Wales, which has traditionally been pro-Europe, the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party gained seven seats in the Welsh Assembly, winning about 13 percent of the vote.
Andrew Blick, a constitutional expert at King’s College London, said the results underscore how difficult the referendum campaign will be – as attitudes nationally seem to be so complex.
“We don’t know where the mood is,” he said. “There are lots of different moods. What message do you push ahead with in the campaign when you have so many different opinions?”