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Thursday, November 18, 1999 Published at 16:06 GMT


UK Politics

Labour divided over Livingstone

Ken Livingstone faces the press after emerging from the selection panel

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Labour is facing months of bitter in-fighting after Ken Livingstone won a place on the shortlist to be the party's candidate for London mayor.

Just hours after Tony Blair urged party members to reject Mr Livingstone, a 13-strong selection panel decided they had no grounds to bar him from running.

While he stood firm in his opposition to government plans to part-privatise London Underground, Mr Livingstone did pledge to stick by whatever the final manifesto says.

His limited "loyalty oath" may not have fully satisfied the panel, which had subjected him to an intense four-hour grilling, but he clearly did enough to persuade them they did not have strong enough grounds to ban him.

Marathon session

The selection panel, meeting for the second marathon session after previously failing to reach a conclusion, were faced with a hugely difficult task.

Whatever their decision, it was certain to pitch the party into a bloody battle.


[ image: Tony Blair has promised to back who ever wins the selection]
Tony Blair has promised to back who ever wins the selection
If they had rejected Mr Livingstone at the first hurdle it would have infuriated London members and sparked a serious backlash against the government which already faces charges of control freakery.

There were even suggestions that there would be mass resignations by London members and revolts by some backbench MPs.

Back to the 1980s

Some claimed Mr Livingstone would then have abandoned previous pledges and stood as an independent.

But by allowing him to run against Mr Blair's chosen candidate, former Health Secretary Frank Dobson, the panel has ensured that the party will be pitched in to the most divisive dispute since the heyday of Militant in the 1980s.

It is exactly that extremist, divided image Mr Blair was determined to avoid.

But he now appears to accept there is no alternative, and he fired the opening shots in the battle with a stinging attack on Mr Livingstone telling a meeting at the Design Council that he would fight to the "last breath" in his body to stop a return to 80s style extremism.

In a clear reference to Mr Livingstone, he declared: "We have created today's Labour party by changing, by modernising, by leaving the politics of extremism behind, by leaving behind everything that made the Labour party despised."

Turning away from the past

And he urged party members to think long and hard about that past battle when it came to choosing the mayoral candidate.

All eyes will now turn to the specially-created electoral college which will have the final say over which of those on the shortlist becomes the official Labour candidate.

The college is made up of three sections - MPs, unions and London members - and they will come under intense pressure to reject Mr Livingstone.

The final decision may not come until some time in the New Year and, between then and now, the Labour machine will turn its entire arsenal onto Mr Livingstone.

Dirty tricks ahead?

His past career as head of the old Greater London Council, where he won the nickname "Red Ken" will be trawled through for ammunition to use against him.

And many fear the campaign could quickly descend into personal attacks and dirty tricks.

Oppositional mayor

It is common knowledge that Mr Blair does not want Mr Livingstone at any price, believing he would use the job of mayor to oppose the government.

But earlier suggestions he was leaning on the party to reject him backfired and Mr Livingstone's popularity grew.

The entire selection procedure then stumbled from one crisis to another until it finally collapsed in a shambles at the first selection panel meeting.

The affair has already damaged the standing of both the Labour Party and the prime minister and the campaign is likely to inflict further harm.

It risks re-opening all the old division which wracked the party through the 1980s at a time when the party should be concentrating on the next general election campaign.



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