Wednesday, June 16, 1999 Published at 06:59 GMT 07:59 UK
Mayor Phillips sets out his stall
Each week BBC News Online's Nyta Mann talks to a politician making the news. This week: broadcaster, writer and contender for the Labour Party London mayoral nomination Trevor Phillips.
We are going to be seeing a lot more of Trevor Phillips over the next few months. With the Euro elections safely out of the way, he is setting out his stall to become the first directly-elected mayor of London.
The mayoral election in May 2000 is the next big electoral test Labour faces. But the poll will be a straightforward contest compared to the battle to become Labour's candidate.
For months now, party managers have been desperately seeking a popular candidate other than "Red Ken" Livingstone, the Brent East MP who threatens to run away with the nomination if the decision is left to party members.
"And to some extent partly because having been in journalism I haven't been able to be publicly active and so forth. I need to explain where I stand and what my ideas are, and why I think I should be mayor, to the party." So he's on a publicity drive to sell himself to London Labour members.
He knows it will take some selling. Livingstone has consistently topped opinion polls of who Labour members and London voters want to see in the job.
He only joined Labour in 1996 - though says he donated a considerable amount to party funds in the dozen years or so before that.
And he has been given the seal of approval by anonymous sources close to party headquarters and Downing Street.
Or at least he was. Like Glenda Jackson and others, Phillips found himself spun up by those sources one week as the ideal New Labour candidate - in other words, an acceptably Blairite alternative to Red Ken - only to be spun down the next when his name failed to immediately take off.
Does he not feel just a little messed around by the Millbank machine?
"I'm a journalist and if any profession is even more poisonous than politics, it's journalism. So I don't have particular personal feelings about what people might or might not have said about me," is his diplomatic answer.
"If you actually are in grown-up politics, this finger-pointing about who did what and who said what to whom - I can't believe that Londoners are in the least bit interested in any of that kind of nonsense."
Labour 'obsessed with our own affairs'
What does Phillips make of this backlash against the spindoctors that may affect his own chances?
"There is a kind of historic problem in the Labour Party which is that we can tend to be slightly obsessed with our own affairs and our own personalities and our own internal business, and I do worry that at some points that makes us look as though we're losing touch with where the majority of the population is."
He hastens to add that he doesn't believe this is the case with the London Labour Party, the body whose members he must win over.
"But we can get very wound up in our own personalities and the, you know, war of tactics and all of that. I understand why that's important. But you know, it's not as important as winning the mayoralty and winning the GLA."
Doesn't Phillips think whoever was doing the spinning in his favour from New Labour's side was being unhelpful to his cause? "Well of course, of course," he readily agrees.
He is also perfectly aware of the troubles that befell the last leadership-approved candidate to suffer this fate. "Stupid comparisons are being made with Wales, for example, where we all know the circumstances," says Phillips.
"Someone who had never set out to be first minister for Wales was brought in and the whole script had to be changed at the last minute. And inevitably people had feelings about that.
'I like Ken - but . . .'
Phillips insists his and Livingstone's rival bids for the Labour nomination have produced only a friendly fight. "Ken and I are friends and I like him, and all of that," he says.
He even makes clear that while Labour looks set to win the mayoral contest, one of the few things that could lose it would be if the party chose a candidate like, well, like Ken Livingstone. If this is Phillips' idea of a friendly fight, I'd hate to see the two seriously falling out.
The racism, it turns out, was the MP's offer to lead a "dream ticket" for the mayoralty with Phillips as his deputy. Phillips sees more to this than just characteristic Livingstone cheek.
"I think it's rather arrogant, wouldn't you say, to say to somebody else 'Oh, you can be my Number Two'?'
But that's not all. "I think that there is a rather serious point that I will put as mildly as I can," he begins. "All of us who come from minority communities get rather used to and fed up of, any time we emerge on the public scene, people treating us as apprentices, you know."
He reels off highlights from his CV. "I have done a great many things in my life. I've worked in the private sector for most of it. I've been an executive in a FTSE 100 company. I've got my own business. I've created an organisation like the Runnymede Trust from virtually nothing. I'm chair of the London Arts Board, which in its actual machinery is pretty much as big as the mayor will have.
"But because I like Ken I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt that it isn't what he meant and that he just made a mistake. But, you know, if he wants to be leader of a city where a third of the people are from ethnic minorities, I think he's going to have to be a little bit more sensitive, isn't he?"
'I'm the underdog'
Phillips sees himself as the candidate fighting against the odds. "The truth of the matter is that I'm the underdog here, in the sense that I have to make my case to the Labour Party members in London.
"I think this sort of rather romantic notion Scarlet Pimpernel-type picture that's being painted of Ken as this sort of ultimate chap who represents the great people who are kept out of the closed Blairites citadels doesn't really stand up to 30 seconds' examination."
When it comes to Blairite citadels, mind you, Phillips is undeniably more the insider, at ease and at home in the New Labour establishment.
Hob-nobbing with Mandelson, joining with Lord (Melvyn) Bragg and others in backing New Labour donor Greg Dyke for BBC director general, and a member - appointed by the government - of the Arts Council for England. In these subtle ways, he is rather closer to power than Livingstone.
'On every sodding street corner'
"I've mined virtually every story that could be mined in one way or another, two or three times. So this thing is in my blood."
But first he must win the nomination. Just as Livingstone is now required to prove his ability to act against perceived type and be loyal to the government, so Phillips must demonstrate he won't just be a Yes-man to Blair.
What, then, does he think the Blair government has got wrong? He is against the government's Asylum Bill. He opposes privatising the Tube. And he is confident that, if mayor, he would inevitably clash with government because that is part of the job.
Who would he prefer to face as the Conservatives' candidate? "I'll take whoever they throw. And we'll beat them," he says. "This is not a Tory town. It's a Labour town."
"Nothing is automatic, but whoever Labour selects has the best chance of winning. I mean, I'd be very, very surprised if we lost."
Not that such a pass is impossible, though: "We'd have to choose somebody who was divisive and vulnerable to Tory criticism of, let's say, excesses in the past, in order to risk losing this one I think."
I wonder who he could be thinking of?
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