Livingstone threatens paralysis

Ken is back, and he's as exciting as ever. But Steve Richardsfears that it will all end in acrimony,

With one month still to go, London's mayoral contest has produced more political casualties than any other election in modern times. Frank Dobson, Steve Norris and Susan Kramer are all striding towards humiliating defeat on 4 May, but they are the lucky ones. Many candidates, who put their names forward with trumpets sounding, have already fallen by the wayside.

Spare a moment's thought for Nick Raynsford, the minister who drew up the legislation for a London mayor. He declared his candidacy at a well-attended press briefing during the Labour conference last October. In the premature excitement, there were even whisperings that Raynsford had secured Prime Ministerial backing. At around the same time the broadcaster Trevor Phillips announced he was seeking the Labour nomination. On the other side, with predictable razzmatazz Lord Archer got as far as winning the Conservatives' internal contest before being blown apart just before Christmas. And let us not forget Malcolm McLaren, an alchemist who turned Sid Vicious into a national institution, but who was unable to make any headway in this bizarre election. He got more publicity when he announced he was standing than later when he pulled out. The contest made him anonymous.

Then there are those who have survived the mayoral slaughter so far, but who will never fully recover from the experience. A few months ago Dobson was a respected health secretary in Tony Blair's cabinet. It was his intervention that forced Raynsford and Phillips to pull out of the race. Phillips has become Dobson's deputy on a doomed "dream ticket". Steve Norris has been humiliated three times already. First, he lost to Lord Archer, a candidate he knew to be a rogue. After Archer pulled out, Hague refused to give the candidacy to Norris. When a re-election was called, Norris was initially blocked from putting his name forward by the party's selection panel. Even the innocuous Susan Kramer has had her problems. She has not made a great impact and some senior Liberal Democrats have been wondering privately whether a bigger name could have exploited the farcical difficulties of the other parties more effectively. The contest seems to wound all those who go near it.

There is an exception to this rule. Ken Livingstone has flourished. He has had no role since the abolition of the GLC. His only post since becoming an MP was a brief stint on the Northern Ireland Select Committee (placed there on the recommendation of Mo Mowlam after the 1997 election). He moved on and off the NEC a couple of times. Most of the time, the years have been empty in terms of political fulfilment Then all of a sudden -and this is highly unusual in Britain - the politician has been reborn. Unlike the return of ageing rock stars to the concert circuit, the new Ken is as exciting as the old one. If anything, the Ken phenomenon this time around has been more dramatic and compelling than it was in the early 1980s.

All these surreal humiliations and a singular triumph can be partly explained by the clash of the old culture based on political parties with a distinctly new one linked to individual personalities. The party machines have not been able to cope. Nor has the media, which has mocked the machines for losing control, and simultaneously attacked them for seeking too much control.

For Labour, especially, the episode has been a painful one and it is by no means over yet. Millbank has got most of the blame, but some of its senior insiders suggest that Downing Street offered no clear leadership. They point out also that on one level the machine has delivered for Blair. Dobson, not Livingstone, is the Labour candidate. But they make this claim with undisguised heavy hearts. The affair has been a shambles and they know it.

The postmortem is being conducted before the contest is over. There is already much talk about what could have been done. One Blairite minister tells me of a long conversation he had with Tony Blair in the summer of 1997. The topic: how to stop Livingstone from becoming mayor. The minister is baffled by how the Prime Minister's focus got so seriously diverted in the years that followed. Neil Kinnock is equally bewildered. In the only public criticism of Blair he has ever made, he told me last December that he would have "acted much earlier" to halt the Livingstone bandwagon.

Blair's busy summer last year has been blamed. Much more important was the lack of an obvious solution. Nearly all those who have criticised Blair have failed to come up with a practical alternative to the sequence of events that unfolded ignominiously. There was an exception. One minister did have a Machiavellian solution that might have been highly effective. More than a year ago he suggested that Labour's manifesto for London should be presented to party members for approval. If it got a majority, any candidate would have been bound by it. The consequence for Labour would either have been a muted, loyal Ken or no Ken at all. The minister concerned, though influential, is not part of the inner circle and his proposal got nowhere.

Now senior Blairite strategists are turning their minds to the next question. How should they respond to a Livingstone victory? Most of them believe that they will have no option other than appeasement. Blair will issue a conciliatory statement on the morning of the victory. Early meetings will be arranged with ministers at John Prescott's mighty department, which has most direct connection to the mayor and the London Assembly (a local government minister, a minister for London and a transport minister). There are even some Blairite ministers who believe that Livingstone should be encouraged to re-join the party as soon as possible, rather than become a charismatic focus for dissent.

Livingstone himself is also heading towards his first proper job for 15 years with good intentions. This is, as he has put it himself, "the last throw of the dice". He has an ego, enjoys being the political performer, but above all he wants to achieve something. He is not going in to the job with the intention of remaking the political map of London and wrecking the Labour Party in the process. At a recent campaign meeting, he declared that he would offer an olive branch to Blair on day one. "The most important thing for me to say is: 'Can we talk about how to go forward?' I'll go anywhere, any time, to meet the Prime Minister."

But there is a huge obstacle to all this potential goodwill. Livingstone is opposed to the government's plans for the tube. The problem for Livingstone is that the government's proposal is now legislation. In theory at least, whoever is elected mayor is obliged to accept it.

Livingstone likes fighting political battles. In internal party contests, he tends to win. He saw off Andrew McIntosh to become GLC leader in 1981. He got a seat in time for the 1987 election. Soon he was an active member on the NEC. After the 1997 election he beat Peter Mandelson to win, again, a place on the NEC.

Yet when it comes to battles over policy, Livingstone is nearly always a loser. The Fares Fair scheme was scrapped. The GLC was abolished. His opposition to Neil Kinnock's policy review got nowhere. His more recent calls for Gordon Brown to be sacked ring hollow now.

On policy issues, almost instinctively, he places himself in a position where he is heading for a glorious defeat. In an under-reported interview with Jonathan Dimbleby on 26 March, Livingstone spelt out his strategy for London Underground once he had won. Here is a transcription of a revealing exchange:

Livingstone: I suspect that if the government did proceed with something that was a bad deal financially for London, they would be open for judicial review, and, as mayor, I wouldn't hesitate to go to court to try and stop the government doing something that was bad for London.

Dimbleby: So if you are elected, you will go the very end of the road to prevent the public-private partnership?

Livingstone: That's the commitment I'm making. I'll use all my resources, including a court challenge if the government doesn't drop their proposal to break up the tube.

So here we go again. The campaign itself is not the only throwback to the early 1980s. The regime will be as well. There could well be another glorious court case. Last time it was the GLC versus Lord Denning over the tube. This time it will be Mayor Ken taking on the government in a judicial review.

There are no good guys in this particular episode of the soap opera. Ministers made a characteristic misjudgement in deciding that they, alone, should decide the structure of London Underground. But the time to campaign against this centralising instinct was when the legislation went through parliament. Instead, Livingstone voted in favour of it. Now there is a serious prospect of paralysis for the tube, while the courts decide in favour of one policy or another.

And there is a danger of a wider paralysis. Livingstone has deliberately avoided having his own slate for the election campaign. He wants to make the widest possible appeal, rather than be associated with an assortment of odd followers. This does not mean that he is a "loner" or a bad administrator, as some of his former GLC colleagues now claim. Many of them have some admiration for Livingstone, and say so privately. But he will have practical problems. Labour will almost certainly be the largest group on the assembly and its members are unlikely to co-operate with him, in the early days at least.

New Labour has mishandled terribly its own internal contest. But has the mayoral experiment been a big mistake? John Prescott has said publicly that he is no fan of the policy. Senior Blairites twitch nervously, wondering whether the whole damned idea has been a huge own goal. Nonsense. Mayors will breathe much-needed life into local government. Their own high profiles will bring an accountability of its own to policy making. When services go wrong, the mayor will get the blame. Whether he or she will be able to do anything about it is an altogether different matter.