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As U.K. Voters Head To Polls, All Eyes Are On London's Mayoral Race

Conservative mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith and his wife, Alice (left); Britain's Labour Party candidate Sadiq Khan and his wife, Saadiya. The candidates cast their votes on Thursday in hopes of becoming London's next mayor.
Ben Stansall, Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
Conservative mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith and his wife, Alice (left); Britain's Labour Party candidate Sadiq Khan and his wife, Saadiya. The candidates cast their votes on Thursday in hopes of becoming London's next mayor.

People are voting in local elections across the U.K. on Thursday, but there is extra attention focused on London's mayoral contest. If the race goes as many pollsters expect, the city could have its first Muslim mayor.

Parliament members Sadiq Khan of the Labour Party and Zac Goldsmith of the Conservative Party are the front-runners in the field of about a dozen candidates vying to replace Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson.

Khan, who is Muslim, was a human rights lawyer before joining Parliament. His parents immigrated to London from Pakistan. His father was a bus driver in the city for more than 25 years, according to his campaign website.

As Lauren Frayer reports for NPR, Khan "was born in South London, one of eight children. The family lived in public housing."

Goldsmith, an environmental activist, used to edit The Ecologist magazine. His father was billionaire Sir James Goldsmith.

"They're the two faces of London, rich and poor, immigrant and blue blood," Lauren notes.

In a statement published by The Guardian, Goldsmith said he was "determined to make London the greenest city on Earth." He wrote that he would "clean up our buses and cabs, get more Londoners cycling and invest in pocket parks, so everyone has access to the outdoors."

Housing affordability and access has been a key issue for Khan. He wrote for the Guardian, "If I become mayor of London, my single biggest priority will be to build thousands more homes every year." He added:

"I am asking [Londoners] to choose hope over fear, to choose change over more of the same, and to vote for me to be a mayor for all Londoners."

Race and religion have also been a part of this contest. Khan's campaign slammed Goldsmith for literature that called Khan a "radical," as the BBC has reported. Goldsmith responded by saying he used the term "to describe what has happened to the Labour Party" and accused Khan of "playing the race card," the BBC says.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said last month he was "concerned" about Khan, telling Parliament that the candidate "has appeared again and again" on a platform with extremists. (You can watch that video on the BBC's website.) The BBC reports:

"In a BBC London debate [in April], Mr Khan said he had 'never hidden' the fact that, as a former chairman of Liberty and a human rights lawyer, he had acted for 'some pretty unsavoury characters'.

"And when asked if he regretted sharing a platform with extremists, he said: 'I regret giving the impression I subscribed to their views and I've been quite clear I find their views abhorrent.' "

Another incident that has roiled the campaign pitted Khan against the leaders of his own party. The Telegraph explains:

"The Labour leadership needs to act far more decisively over allegations of anti-Semitism in the ranks, the party's candidate for London mayor has said.

"Sadiq Khan said there could be no place for anyone holding the views of Ken Livingstone, who plunged the party into turmoil last week with his claim that Hitler supported Zionism in the 1930s."

Khan is leading by double-digits in the polls, according to Pippa Crerar, city hall editor of the London Evening Standard. On Wednesday, Crerar told All Things Considered:

"If Sadiq Khan, as everyone thinks is going to be the case, becomes the next mayor of London, then it sends out a huge message globally because London will have elected a Muslim mayor, or rather a mayor that happens to be Muslim — elected him obviously for his policies."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.