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Wednesday, October 20, 1999 Published at 13:23 GMT 14:23 UK

UK Politics

Labour's fears over London mayor

Frank Dobson launched an 11th hour bid for mayor

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Labour bosses are whipping themselves up into a lather over the election of London's first political mayor.

Despite all their best efforts, they are terrified that Ken Livingstone may still win the party's nomination for the post and use it as a platform to attack Tony Blair's government.

But, in their desperation to ensure the right person wins, they are once again facing accusations of control freakery and authoritarianism.

Probably the greatest victim of this was former Health Secretary Frank Dobson who has now become Mr Blair's anointed candidate.

Over the past year or so Mr Dobson was eager to tell anyone who asked that he had no intention of standing for the job and was not interested in it. He also insisted Mr Blair was not pressing him to stand.

Maybe so, but there was plenty of indirect pressure on him and it has even been rumoured in Westminster that he was told he was about to lose his cabinet post anyway so might as well salvage something by going for the mayor's job.

Straight fight

Whether that is true or not, his 11th-hour decision to stand delighted Mr Blair who is eager to see his man beat Mr Livingstone in a straight fight.

[ image: Ken Livingstone and Jeffrey Archer: The contest Labour doesn't want]
Ken Livingstone and Jeffrey Archer: The contest Labour doesn't want
Unfortunately for the plain-speaking Mr Dobson, that has already seen him branded by some on the left as Mr Blair's poodle - a tag few ever believed would be attached to him of all people. And the fight is looking less than straight.

Party managers are so worried about the threat posed by Mr Livingstone that they have been accused of trying to fix the ballot by opting for a complicated electoral college selection system rather than a simple one-member, one-vote alternative.

This is the same system used in the election for the leader of the Welsh party, which saw popular favourite Rhodri Morgan defeated in favour of the Blairite candidate Alun Michael.

But the tactic very nearly backfired in Wales. Core Labour voters stayed at home in their droves when asked to vote for Mr Michael in the Cardiff assembly elections.

Many argued that New Labour championed OMOV when it suited them - for example when watering down the union block vote at party conference - but abandoned it and returned to the old ways when they wanted to control an election.

If Mr Dobson does win the Labour nomination there is a good chance that many London party members will feel the same way.

Standing down

The other casualties have been the other Labour candidates - Trevor Phillips, Nick Raynsford and Glenda Jackson - who, once Mr Dobson executed his U-turn, were immediately under pressure to stand down and give him a clear field.

The last thing Mr Blair wants is to split anti-Ken vote and hand the nomination to Mr Livingstone on a plate.

But even after all the manoeuvring, the opinion polls still suggest Labour's worst nightmare may come true and Mr Livingstone could beat Mr Dobson.

The tantalising alternative, of course, is that Mr Livingstone loses but decides to stand as an independent. That would infuriate Mr Blair and see Mr Livingstone thrown out of the party.

Labour leaders would accuse him of splitting the Labour vote and threatening to let Tory candidate Jeffrey Archer come through the middle to seize the crown in the London-wide election.

Mr Livingstone insists he has no intention of doing any such thing - but if he said anything else at the moment he would certainly be expelled from the party and his personal integrity would take a severe knock.

But many believe if he loses the nomination but wins the majority of votes in the London members' section of the electoral college he could use that to justify standing as an independent "people's choice."

Tory vote

Meanwhile, those Labour Party loyalists who back the electoral college system of voting privately point to the Tory selection procedure to support their case.

William Hague allowed a one-member, one-vote poll and ended up with Lord Archer, who was not his first choice.

The controversial and colourful novelist is seen in Tory Central Office as just a bit too much of a character.

Nonetheless, he has powerful public support and must stand a very good chance of winning the election when it finally takes place on 11 May.

And if Mr Dobson wins the Labour nomination but then loses to Lord Archer, Mr Blair will face another backlash from Labour activists who will claim Mr Livingstone would have beaten the Tory candidate.

But for some New Labour bosses the thought of a London run by Lord Archer is probably vastly more attractive than a capital lead by Mr Livingstone.

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