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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 10:54 GMT

UK Politics

Labour race for mayor turns to farce

Ken Livingstone faces a second vetting

By political correspondent Nick Assinder

Labour's attempt to choose a candidate to be London's first political mayor has descended into a farce after a selection panel couldn't decide whether or not to let Ken Livingstone stand.

According to party bosses, the 13-strong team took four hours to decide that they couldn't trust "Red Ken" to stick to a Labour manifesto he didn't like.

Mr Livingstone, however, points out that the manifesto hasn't yet been drawn up and that, when it is, it might seem sensible for the mayoral candidate to have a say in it.

The central issue is over the future of the capital's crumbling underground system.

The official Labour line is for a public-private partnership - "semi-privatisation" in Mr Livingstone's book.

[ image: Future of the tube the central row]
Future of the tube the central row
He has suggested issuing bonds to raise cash for improvements and insisted he would never allow Railtrack to get its hands on any of the network.

Apparently he suggested to the selection panel that, if he was finally selected as the mayoral candidate, he might stand down unless he got his way, leaving Labour in the lurch.

Panel confused

But there was confusion amongst members of the panel over exactly what he had said, or meant.

Some even believe he was deliberately trying to manipulate the system to ensure he was not selected and could then stand as an independent.

Others suggest it was a planned tactic by the leadership to ensure he failed the so-called "loyalty oath" and could be banned from standing.

They point to the fact that it was cabinet office minister Ian McCartney who dominated the questioning on the issue, suggesting it was a put up job by Tony Blair.

Either way, the exercise was a disaster for Labour and has left the party' infamous Millbank machine looking either inept or incompetent. It is no secret that Mr Blair doesn't want Mr Livingstone at any price and has allegedly used every trick in the book to stop him.

[ image: Millbank Tower: the scene of the shambles]
Millbank Tower: the scene of the shambles
The main tactic was to find another candidate who would outshine him. He tried several - Trevor Phillips, Glenda Jackson and Nick Raynsford - before finally persuading, or bullying, Frank Dobson into doing it.

There were then reports he was leaning on the selection panel to ensure they stopped Mr Livingstone from getting onto the shortlist of candidates.

Control freak

But it all backfired dramatically as London voters and party members accused him of more control freakery and attempting to stitch up the result.

It then emerged that Mr Blair had decided the selection panel should allow Mr Livingstone onto the shortlist.

There would then be a full-blooded campaign by all the candidates in the run up to the final decision by the specially-created electoral college.

[ image: Tony Blair: Changed his mind]
Tony Blair: Changed his mind
The gloves would then come off and Mr Livingstone would find himself at the wrong end of the entire party machine.

But, when the time came, the panel couldn't make a decision and that led to exactly the sort of shambles Mr Blair had been trying to avoid.

Both his own standing and the party's reputation has been badly damaged by the affair and no one can be certain what will happen now.

It seems possible the selection panel will decide to ban Mr Livingstone and he will then announce his intention of standing as an independent.

But, as the past few weeks have shown, anything could happen.

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