Millions of British voters go to the polls Thursday in the most important elections since David Cameron sealed a second term as prime minister a year ago, but this time it is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s future that is at stake. Despite the squabbling inside the ruling Conservative party divided over Europe, the local and regional elections are shaping up as the first real test of the Labor leader´s reign and one that his opponents are desperate to ensure he fails.
Londoners will decide whether to elect Sadiq Khan, the Labour front-runner, as their first Muslim mayor. Mr. Khan, who is the son of an immigrant bus driver, is the favorite to replace the outgoing mayor, Boris Johnson, a Conservative.
But outside London the elections may provide Labour with more ominous results that could increase pressure on Corbyn at a time when newspapers have been filled with speculation about plots against him from within the party in the aftermath of a dispute over allegations of anti-Semitism in its ranks.
Across the nation, millions of ballots will be cast in elections that include those for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, mayors in London, Liverpool, Salford and Bristol, councilors in 124 municipalities, and some police commissioners.
Things would be “pretty bad” for Labour, apart from the London mayoral contest “and London should not be of much comfort to Jeremy Corbyn because Sadiq Khan campaigned despite Jeremy Corbyn,” said Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. He was referring to the fact that Mr. Khan has distanced himself from Mr. Corbyn since last year, when Mr. Khan nominated Mr. Corbyn in Labor’s leadership contest, but then opted not to vote for him.
”Scotland, Labour will be retreating; in Wales, Labour, which is already a minority government, might be forced to go into coalition,” Professor Fielding added.
Scotland used to be a Labour stronghold, but Thursday’s elections for the Scottish Parliament are expected to confirm the dominance of the Scottish National Party, which leads the Scottish government. Though it lost a referendum in 2014 over Scottish independence, which it still champions, the S.N.P. rebounded and won a landslide in Scotland in last year’s general election.
The anticipated surge for the S.N.P. could inject new life into the cause for Scottish independence just ahead of the European Union referendum that is likely to highlight Scotland’s preference for remaining inside the bloc. Should the overall vote in Britain be for withdrawal, against the wishes of Scots, pressure for a second referendum on Scottish independence would likely grow.
Against this backdrop, Labour’s fortunes in Scotland are so reduced that it finds itself in a grim battle with the Conservatives for the place of second-biggest party in the Scottish Parliament.
In London, Corbyn faces continuing dissent from some of his own lawmakers, most of whom did not vote for him last year in a leadership contest that he won with an overwhelming majority of party members and supporters.
Thursday’s council elections are one of the first major tests of Corbyn’s electoral appeal. But Labor faces a tough task in retaining the seats it currently holds. They were last contested four years ago, when the party was performing well. In some of its urban English strongholds, and in Wales, Labour is also now being challenged by the U.K. Independence Party, which campaigns against immigration and for leaving the European Union.
Corbyn’s leadership is under special scrutiny after recent claims of anti-Semitism in his party. Last week he suspended Naseem Shah, a lawmaker, and Ken Livingstone, a former London mayor and a close ally, after both were accused of making anti-Semitic comments.
Some of Corbyn’s internal enemies believe that poor results in Thursday’s elections could prove a catalyst for a leadership challenge against him, according to many British newspapers. But Corbyn told the left-leaning Daily Mirror this week that he was losing no sleep over speculation of a leadership challenge.
“If there is one, there is one — but I’m not having sleepless nights about this,” Corbyn said, adding that he was “elected with a very big mandate to do the job” and urging critics to “respect the mandate. Respect the wishes of party members.”
A victory in the London mayoral contest would probably give Corbyn’s supporters enough evidence of Labor’s electoral appeal to quiet his critics, for the time being at least.
Ultimately his internal opponents know that even if they were to force a new leadership contest, they have no credible alternative candidate who could beat Corbyn among the party members and supporters who have the final say — and who remain largely loyal to their leader.