Thursday's vote for local councils will gauge views on Labour Party's government and immigration policy.
LONDON AND BECONTREE, ENGLAND
When it comes to local elections in Britain, most people usually look the other way. Town hall votes are often low-key affairs, thrilling only to political junkies and voters passionate about speed limits, garbage collection, and street lights.
Not so this year. Thursday's vote has taken on far broader significance than usual because of two major developments: the deepening woes of Tony Blair's Labour government and the sudden emergence of the far-right British National Party (BNP) threatening an electoral breakthrough.
The results of votes for more than 4,000 councillors in 176 districts will be scrutinized more closely than usual. Will voters, dismayed at a sequence ofgovernment blunders, desert Labour en masse, putting pressure on Mr. Blair to advance his long-promised retirement? Will the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, make his mark in his first election at the helm?
And will the BNP, like other anti-immigration parties elsewhere in Europe, achieve a historically high vote?
"I can't see there being a good result for us on Thursday night," says Ian Gibson, a Labour member of parliament (MP). "People are very edgy about the whole thing, about minority parties like the BNP winning votes."
"Local elections are regarded as a test of the popularity of the major parties, and this time the government has struggled to spin its way out of its troubles," adds John Curtice, a politics professor at Strathclyde University.
Those troubles have involved charges of incompetence and scandal that have stalked Blair's government in recent weeks. After a row over allegations that his party rewarded its donors with seats in the House of Lords, Blair's government is now struggling to explain why, despite talking tough on law and order, it allowed more than 1,000 foreign criminals to remain on Britain's streets, instead of deporting them after they were released from prison.
The admission has threatened to cost Home Secretary Charles Clarke his job. A second senior minister, John Prescott, is also under fire for conducting an extra-marital affair on government premises.