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banner Friday, 22 September, 2000, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Red Ken, ready for a love-in

By BBC News Online's Nyta Mann

Labour conference is here and the deadline is upon us: in April, days before London voters made him their mayor, Ken Livingstone predicted he would be back in the party fold by now.

He insists he really did think the party that expelled him for standing against its official candidate would readmit him after a just a few months. "Yes, it's sound logic - if you're ever going to bring me back, bring me back quickly," he says.

Let me help you in your hour of need

Ken Livingstone to Tony Blair
But he doesn't blame the delay on Tony Blair, who warned that the left-winger would be "disastrous" for the capital: "I suspect in his heart of hearts he wants me back in and it's evil people trying to prevent it."

If Labour chiefs block his re-entry for long "it's because they're not being objective. As a Vulcan, I've always tried to be dispassionate and objective about things."

Adopting human form, he takes a more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone to point out the error of the leadership's ways in, so far, insisting that the standard expulsion period of at least five years applies to the Brent East MP.

"I just find it bizarre because if you're going to get me back in it's best to do it before the conference where there's going to be, you know, an issue," he says.

"And you certainly want me back in so I can help revive the party's standing in the polls, getting it up to a sound level... I mean, I'm not the one facing an election within eight months five points behind in the polls. I'm just trying to be helpful."

Livingstone's message to his erstwhile leader: "Let me help you in your hour of need."

Mowlam sought job for Livingstone

When I saw Blair before the election I said I'd take any job he'd offer me, I'd be happy to work in his government

Mo Mowlam tried to persuade him to give me one

Ken Livingstone
It could all have been so different, Livingstone says: "Wouldn't it have been better if all my skills had been put to supporting him rather than having to fight him? I mean, I went and offered him such reasonable deals at every stage."

He reveals that not only did he make clear to Blair before Labour won office in 1997 that he was willing to serve in any ministerial post, but that Mo Mowlam - shadow Northern Ireland secretary in opposition, appointed to the real thing in government - fought in vain for a job in her team for Livingstone.

"When I saw him [Blair] before the election I said I'd take any job he'd offer me, I'd be happy to work in his government. Mo Mowlam tried to persuade him to give me one.

"Wouldn't it be amazing - I'd have been tied up in some little room in Northern Ireland for three years supporting the government by now. Isn't life full of rich irony?"

'We'll do a love-in'

Having missed his chance then, the prime minister now "should be sending me around marginal seats in London in the run-up to the election saying 'Vote Labour'," Livingstone says.

"Because if Tony Blair doesn't get re-elected I'll never get more money and powers out of William Hague than I would out of a Labour government."

Surely he would be urging voters to back Labour anyway? "Oh yes. But it would just be a lot better if it was organised by the party, and with me and Tone walking in procession down the Strand or something, waving at the lovely voters.

"Something big and significant, a great London landmark for the reconciliation. Perhaps we should go round in the London Eye together."

His current hope is to get his membership card back "before the election".

If Livingstone genuinely believes this likely, he is virtually alone at Westminster.

Upon his re-admission, the prime minister - and all his senior colleagues who loyally followed his lead - would have his fire and brimstone warnings against a Livingstone mayoralty repeatedly thrown in his face throughout what could be a much closer election campaign than looked possible a month ago.

Livingstone sees no difficulty in this: "No problem. I can bull**** with the rest of them. We'll stand there and do a love-in." And if "Tone" feels unequal to the task, "I can do enough for the both of us".

No leadership ambitions

At the mayor's Romney House headquarters Livingstone works with the same people he would in all likelihood have taken on were he Labour's mayor, rather than an independent.

Several stalwarts from the Greater London Council's heyday have joined him. He has transplanted his Commons researchers. His deputy is a Labour Greater London Assembly member and he has several Labour MPs in his mayoral cabinet.

He agrees that in terms of feel and day to day business he might as well still be in his former party. Why then is he bothered about a formal return?

"I never want to run a campaign like that again," he says in reference to the ramshackle, seat-of-the-pants operation that sought to play the role Labour's party machine would have taken had he been its candidate for mayor.

"It would be nice to be the Labour candidate next time round."

"[And] I want to have a say in the way the Labour Party develops. As Labour starts to come home to its true roots, it'd be nice to welcome it back."

He rules himself out of ever returning to the Commons and dismisses suggestions he may still harbour ambitions to lead the party, insisting the "say" he desires is to be "just one voice among many".

According to Livingstone, Labour's high command needs to ensure that this year's conference sends the message that the party values its core supporters.

"They've just got to reassure people that in that second term they're going to press ahead with the increased public spending, and it isn't just going to be on transport and health and education, it's going to be the pensioners and the other groups that have been waiting a bit too long."

Boring Ken?

Observers have noted that Independent Mayor Livingstone gives the impression of being more loyal to his old party than dissident Labour backbencher Livingstone was. He will not, for example, repeat his call for Chancellor Gordon Brown to resign, even now that others have lately joined in.

"Why go with the common herd?" he demurs. "No, no. I wouldn't get involved with a load of Tories demanding Gordon Brown should go."

Livingstone has also largely disappeared as a national news story. The mayoral campaign was as dramatic as political fights get; since May's election, the unsexy drudgery of local government has set in.

Even coverage by the London media has, as yet, failed to uncover any outrageous left-wingery on Livingstone's part. He promised to be exciting but has Red Ken, by the simple act of taking office, metamorphosed into Boring Ken?

"No - we are doing wonderful things," he protests.

"It's a bit like Carter discovering Tutenkhamun's tomb," he explains. "You break in, which is like the election, and you can see what can be done in there.

"But the general public won't get to see it all for a couple of years when we've brought it out and cleaned it up."

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