Step forward, Sir Red

Turn Again Livingstone

John Carvel <em>Profile Books, 328pp, £6.99</em>

"I love Ken," flashes the tattoo in Hugh Grant's new film, Notting Hill. Tony Blair won't go that far but in the next few months he will have to decide what he actually thinks of Ken Livingstone, and certainly before 70,000 London Labour Party members choose who will, in all likelihood, be the capital's first directly elected mayor. No doubt Blair will receive (probably conflicting) advice but make no mistake, the decision will be his: one member, one veto.

Livingstone wrote recently that, while the Millbank minions are planning to block him, Blair has yet to make up his mind. A Downing Street source, quoted by John Carvel in his new book, supports that view. Were Blair to have the time and inclination to make a fully informed choice he would only need to read this book. Similarly, those Labour Party members, like myself, who feel simultaneously drawn to Livingstone's freshness and style but repelled by some of his politics, can find all they need here to reach their own conclusions on whether blocking Ken is worth the accompanying political fallout and, let us not forget, moral discomfort.

Turn Again Livingstone is a thorough and well (though plainly) written account, largely drawn from Carvel's previous book, Citizen Ken, with added chapters on Livingstone's time as MP for Brent East. No British politician received such intense vilification - and therefore scrutiny - as Livingstone did in his early GLC days, yet he remains popular. Carvel rightly questions how this can be so, given the electorate's conservatism. He doesn't try to offer answers - this isn't that type of biography - but clues litter the text. For example, Livingstone has been consistent, he communicates clearly, he stands for something and, crucially, has been proved right on many occasions.

Imagine if Red Ken had made a speech in 1984, laying out his aims for the next Labour government. "In its first two years I want to see the hereditary peers wiped out, an equal age of consent for gay men at 16, an acknowledgement that the Metropolitan Police is institutionally racist and for Gerry Adams to be a regular and respected visitor to Downing Street."

It's because times have so moved on that Mayor Livingstone would not - could not - be a reincarnation of Red Ken. The job, for a start, is different. The GLC's image came, in large part, from the extravagant grants that it awarded, leading to an inexhaustible fount of headlines of the "£10,000 to one-legged lesbian kung-fu club" variety.

These, along with the wider political positions espoused by the GLC leadership, led to the "loony left" tag that has taken London Labour so long to detach. The GLC's policies, though similar to those in other councils (such as David Blunkett's Sheffield and Margaret Hodge's Islington) were at great variance with those of the national party. Livingstone's charisma (and a lazy, London-centred media) magnified these, hampering Neil Kinnock's attempt to portray Labour as moderate, if not, at that stage, actually "new".

But today, which beliefs held by the MP for Brent East are so different from those of the MP for Sedgefield? More bus lanes? Of course, Livingstone has other more fundamental views, principally about macro-economic policy; but the point is that the mayoralty would not offer him any influence over such matters. Once he makes his first "lower/raise interest rates" speech, it is unlikely that anyone will be listening; we shall be too busy asking why there aren't more bus lanes.

Economics is the one area where Livingstone concedes that he has changed his view. He now signs up to the free market rather than to central planning, but still believes in state action where the market is deficient, especially to boost investment. He supports low inflation, would sign up to the single currency, but remains hostile to any hint of privatisation. It's a strange rag-bag of positions, but not that different from many back-bench MPs, and even the odd minister.

None of this matters much; the remit of the London mayor is restricted and Livingstone seems to accept that. He is doing all he can to offer Blair, as he says, "a categorical assurance that if elected I would work with your government, not against it. There is no question of my using the mayoral position to wage political warfare."

He has made this pledge in private, as well as in public letters to Blair. Carvel reveals that Blair was minded to give Livingstone a ministerial job in 1997. He hints at secret discussions, and takes Livingstone's unusual reticence over whether these took place as a clear sign that they did. We don't know why it never happened, but it does show Blair's hostility is not total. After all, Livingstone's colleagues from the GLC, Tony Banks and Paul Boateng, serve loyally in the government.

Those who will advise Blair when he makes his final decision - such as Margaret McDonagh at Millbank - were steeped in the war zone that was London Labour politics in the 1980s. He might find them trying to refight the battles of the past. But the advice may not be entirely one-sided. Bill Bush, Downing Street's newest recruit, was a former head of political research at the BBC. Before that, he was Livingstone's chief of staff at County Hall. Bush is quoted by Carvel, saying: "He was an astonishingly good bureaucrat. He read papers fast and got the point. If we made a mistake, he would say so privately but take responsibility in public. So we'd die in the last ditch for him."

Turn Again Livingstone sets out how Livingstone's views originally developed and how and where they have modernised since. Born on 17 June 1945, the man who would be mayor will be 55, if and when he takes up the post. He was 35 when he won the leadership of the GLC. He will have given up his seat in parliament and he can serve for only one four-year term. For Livingstone, being mayor is, I believe, his political swansong. One can imagine him, unlike many politicians, retiring happily to spend more time with his newts and on TV quiz shows. It would be a political career turned full circle. Reading this book has convinced me that Ken Livingstone should be given his chance.

Blair's methods of co-opting those outside his own politics into his government's work have been described as "Project Hoover". It seems, though, that the Hoover only ever sweeps to the right, sucking up to Chris Patten and the like. Perhaps Ken can't be subsumed because, as Carvel makes clear above all else, he will always be his own man. On balance, given his manifesto and commitments, Blair should take the risk. The worse that can happen is that populist left-wing pressure is occasionally placed on the government - and that, frankly, would be no bad thing.

Derek Draper is a former adviser to Peter Mandelson. "Turn Again Livingstone" is available to "NS" subscribers, post-free, for the discounted price of £6.99. Tel: 0800 731 8496