Vote Red Ken for a cleaner bus

How political fashions change. Not so long ago the Labour Party was condemned in the media and by its political opponents for being unleadable. Now the leadership is attacked for wanting to lead.

In the early 1980s, Michael Foot was written off as a weak leader when he failed to impose a candidate of his choice in the Bermondsey by-election, which Labour lost disastrously. Neil Kinnock was also condemned when Labour fielded a poor candidate in the Greenwich by-election several years later. Let us not be partisan about this. At the last election, John Major was mocked mercilessly by the media for his failure to ditch Neil Hamilton as Conservative candidate for Tatton. How weak and pathetic, we all cried, when we were told that party rules forbade interference in the selection of candidates.

What was perceived as weak then has become all the rage now. "How dare the national Labour leadership attempt to influence who will stand as the party's candidates in London/Wales/Scotland?" is the question of the moment. To which I reply: "Why not?" Panorama this week, most newspapers, Rhodri Morgan, Ken Livingstone and many others seem to disapprove of the leadership's involvement. But it is surely the responsibility of party leaders to promote the people they think are best for the job.

As I have written here before, all party leaders are control freaks. Even Paddy the Pluralist has been known to stomp around his party conference incandescent with rage when delegates have had the cheek to defeat him. It is just that some leaders are better control freaks than others.

The new Labour control freaks are nowhere near as masterful as their image suggests. They did not want another contest in Wales after the resignation of Ron Davies, but had one imposed upon them anyway. The Blairite slate for the NEC elections was heavily defeated last year and, the year before, Ken Livingstone beat Peter Mandelson. Now they are in a tizzy about what to do over Livingstone's embryonic candidacy for the Mayor of London. So far Ken is walking all over them. As I revealed here first, a couple of weeks ago, the national leadership may drop plans to veto his candidacy for fear of the uproar that would cause. Instead, they are seeking a candidate who could beat him in an internal election. Frank Dobson was mentioned to me as a possible opponent.

In some sections of the Labour Party and in much of the media, this is seen as outrageous behaviour. In my view Blair and co have every right to be in a tizzy. The same newspapers that are defending Livingstone's right to stand would start writing headlines about new Labour's "disarray" if he was elected as mayor. For Blair, the prospect is a political nightmare. But these apparent masters of manipulation are far from sure how to stop Livingstone.

In this obsession about control freakery two different questions have become blurred. Control over party is one matter, a dynamic that varies all the time. The Tory leadership used to exert total control over the party, a situation that changed dramatically in the final years of the Major government. New Labour, on the other hand, evolved after four election defeats and a series of near-fatal divisions; loyalty to the cause is seen as a condition, almost, of membership. Yet even at the height of its powers, the leadership cannot always get its way.

The much more interesting question is whether this government, which came to power with a pluralist agenda, genuinely wants to give away its centralised powers. Party management is one matter, but managing the programme of constitutional reform is another and, ultimately, a much more explosive issue.

Take Livingstone's packed rally in Westminster earlier this week. Although the atmosphere was reminiscent of evangelical left-wing meetings of the early 1980s, the substance of Livingstone's speech was not. The most he promised was cleaner buses. The audience went wild at the prospect, which, I suppose, says something about London buses.

But Livingstone could not offer much more because the mayor will not have the power to do much more. As Christian Wolmar points out on page 29, the mayor will inherit a messy, inefficient financial structure for the Tube, imposed by the government. New Labour, terrified before the election of charges that it would revive the GLC, has given the new body no tax-raising powers. The real danger is that, after all the hype and drama, the new London body will not have enough power to meet expectations.

Elsewhere, as far as the government's constitutional reform programme is concerned, there is an odd disjunction between the amount of legislative time it takes up and ministers' lack of enthusiasm. For the past few weeks the Commons has been almost exclusively occupied with the proposal to abolish the hereditary peers. Yet Lords reform is not a great talking point with ministers. Likewise, the degree of enthusiasm for devolution varies considerably. I suspect the story in Scotland over time will not be the Labour Party's treatment of its own candidates, but whether the Scottish Parliament has been given enough power to satisfy the country.

These are ministers who have waited 18 years for power. They are not especially interested in giving it away now they have arrived. Instead, they want to get on with raising standards in schools and in hospitals. Unfortunately for them, during those 18 years they accumulated, at different times and for different reasons, a range of measures that imply a big shift in power away from the centre.

That is a more combustible tension at the heart of new Labour than Blair's understandable desire to keep a grip on his party.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think