Londoners voted overwhelmingly to elect their own mayor for the first time in history, the next step in Prime Minister Tony Blair's drive to decentralize power across Britain.

With all 33 districts reporting Friday, the vote for a strong elected mayor and assembly was 72 percent in favor. In local elections around Britain, the opposition Conservative Party made modest gains.With no organized opposition, only 34 percent of London's 5 million registered voters turned out Thursday.

Blair conceded he was disappointed by the turnout but predicted Londoners would prove enthusiastic about the change, an assertion echoed by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

"When the next vote comes as to who is going to be the mayor of London, I think a lot more people will come out," Prescott said.

The mayor, to be elected late next year, would run a $5.5 billion budget and be responsible for police, transportation, fire and emergency services, economic development and promoting the capital.

Among the likely candidates are best-selling novelist Lord Jeffrey Archer, businessman-balloonist Richard Branson and Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson, now a Labor lawmaker.

But the most popular figure in early opinion polls is Ken Livingstone, a Labor lawmaker popularly known as "Red Ken" from his days as head of the Greater London Council - which was dissolved by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government in 1986.

Livingstone has been a sharp critic of Blair's tight-fisted, middle-of-the-road policies.

The City of London, the square-mile district that is Europe's biggest financial center, has had a Lord Mayor since the 12th century - but that is only a ceremonial role.

In local elections around England, the Conservative Party recouped some of its losses from the 1997 elections that drove it from power. In particular, it regained control of the council in its traditional London suburban bastion of Tunbridge Wells.