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Thursday, 18 November, 1999, 17:53 GMT
Watching the Ken circus
Ken Livingstone: Lurching from one ordeal to another

By BBC News Online's Matthew Grant

The sign behind the chairman of the Labour mayor selection board read: "New Labour - making London better."

Nothing could have appeared less appropriate, especially for the hacks and snappers who had spent nearly four hours waiting for Ken Livingstone to emerge from his second appearance before the party's selectors in three days.

The Red Ken circus arrives
Ken left the building at 1410 GMT. Actually, he only made it to the threshold. After escaping the panel's clutches, he walked straight into a classic media scrum baying for instant answers and images.

Ken had arrived followed by two men dressed as monkeys three hours and 53 minutes earlier. Far from journalistic accuracy, such precision merely indicates the numbing cold and tedium experienced on the steps of Labour HQ.

The only people to benefit were sandwich sellers who arrived by bicycle. As he walked towards the exit, Ken was smiling. When he opened his mouth, he said he too had enjoyed some very nice sandwiches.

Why had it taken so long? They had been having an adult discussion. ("The Labour Party is a reasonable and grown-up body.") Had he backed down on his opposition to Railtrack being involved in running the tube? No, he had not. ("I'd like to congratulate the party on its decency and wisdom.")

Would he be on the shortlist? He could not say, just drop enormous hints. ("I'll be interested to read the stories of those of you who said I wouldn't be allowed to stand.")

There is always a photographer ahead
Then he scurried off up the road, still trailed by photographers. The only person who was supposed to have people walking backwards in front of them this week was the Queen during the state opening of Parliament - but the real fascination is in the rebel king.

With Ken on his way, the journalists headed for the media conference shortly to begin inside Millbank Tower. As they were finally let in from the cold, one put forward the theory Ken was just saying he had been let through so he would appear an even greater martyr when he was blocked.

This, it transpired, was nonsense. In truth, the 13-strong panel had deliberated for an extra two days and spent a further four hours with the candidate to come to exactly the same decision everyone had expected them to come to in the first place.

"Crystal clear"

The man forced to stand and try to make sense of the farce was Shepherd's Bush MP Clive Soley. To him it was all very simple. In fact it was "crystal clear". Ken had accepted he had no veto over the London Labour manifesto for May's election and promised he would not stand down even if he did not like the look of the document when it finally appears.

The chairman of the panel was "delighted to have achieved this clarity". On the actual issue of public-private partnership for the tube, he even claimed "John Prescott has been putting it very clearly".

Clearly too close to the subject, he appeared to have forgotten almost no-one understood the real point of contention, still less the acronyms used to wonk about it. "I want to be absolutely crystal clear," he said. "The PPP is likely to be in the manifesto."

The man from Channel 5 News, perching on the arm of his chair, decided to speculate as to what had really happened. Put simply, he suggested, Ken had backed down, changed his mind?

After a long digression from the chairman, his sidekick Ian McCartney MP - a straight-talking Glaswegian who is known to have clashed with the mayoral hopeful on his first visit - made his only comment of the news conference: "But he did change his mind, you're absolutely right."

All that was left was for the Labour Party to express its hope that perhaps now people could finally get back to talking about the issues. Had they not realised where that had got them

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See also:
17 Nov 99 |  UK Politics
CV: Ken 'Red Ken' Livingstone
18 Nov 99 |  UK Politics
Livingstone scrapes through
18 Nov 99 |  UK Politics
Labour divided over Livingstone

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