Polling stations opened across Britain for general elections widely predicted to give Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair a third straight term in power.
Polling stations opened at 7:00 a.m. (0600 GMT) in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for a new 646-seat House of Commons. Polls will close at 10:00 p.m. (2100 GMT).
Blair’s Labour Party won landslide victories in 1997 and 2001, but his love affair with the public has soured since he chose to back the Iraq war in March 2003, braving widespread public scepticism and the biggest protest march ever seen in the country.
The conflict, especially Blair’s reasons for joining it, has haunted the premier throughout a difficult election campaign during which opponents openly labelled him a liar.
Nonetheless, a raft of new opinion polls in Thursday morning’s newspapers reiterated the expectation that Labour were heading for another victory, albeit by a smaller margin than previously.
It would be the first time the once-socialist, now centrist party has won three elections in a row since it was founded in 1900.
A win would also propel Blair into the pantheon of modern British political giants alongside ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who won a trio of elections from 1979 to 1987.
All the polls tipped Labour to easily win the absolute majority of seats in the lower House of Commons necessary for it to form a government without the assistance of other parties.
Predictions for the victory margin ranged from around 130 seats in a poll for the Guardian — below the 167 achieved in 2001 — to figures of 60 or 90 to 120 in other newspapers.
Labour’s share of the popular vote, nearly 41 percent at the last election, was also expected to drop, with a number of former supporters expected to desert the party for the anti-Iraq war Liberal Democrats.
Millions of others, however, were tipped to stay loyal in recognition of Blair’s spending on the government-run National Health Service, state schools and other public amenities.
But in contrast to the goodwill seen in 1997 and 2001, many Labour voters have said they will put their cross next to the party’s name with misgivings, notably over Iraq, voting as some have put it “with pegs on our noses”.
Blair himself has warned repeatedly that if enough disgruntled Labour voters, or even those just confident of a Labour win, stay at home, it could bring a “back door” win for the main opposition Conservative Party.
Analysts dismiss this as extremely unlikely, but also note that the turnout could easily fall below the 59.4 percent seen in 2001, itself the lowest figure since World War I.
Blair’s likely return to Downing Street would be in no small part because of the continued weakness of the Conservatives, currently on their fourth leader since losing office in 1997.
Under Michael Howard, the Conservatives have fought a tough, personal battle, attacking Blair as a liar over Iraq and focusing on a core of policies such as curbing immigration.
The campaign, devised by imported Australian election guru Lynton Crosby, has attracted headlines and rattled Blair, but the polls seem to show it has had little impact on voters.
In contrast, the smaller Liberal Democrats under personable leader Charles Kennedy could well boost their current tally of 54 seats in the 646-member parliament.
Many newspapers on Thursday echoed the complaints of voters over recent weeks that the election has been a drab affair, more focused on personal bickering than new initiatives.
It had been “an uninspiring campaign”, the Times sighed in an editorial column, urging people to go and vote anyway.
Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph noted that the campaign had been strange because Blair, in an attempt to avoid controversy, had “kept extraordinarily quiet about his proposals on a wide range of issues”. — AFP