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Monday, 6 March, 2000, 12:09 GMT
Ken Livingstone: Rebel with a cause
After listening to Londoners for just over two weeks - and realising that Frank Dobson was not going to back down as Labour's candidate for the capital's first directly-elected mayor - Ken Livingstone has taken the biggest political gamble of his life.
The newt-lover and former leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) is rooted in Labour, and only last week spoke of his love for the party and his many friends within it.
But if his decision is a huge personal wrench, it is also the latest chapter in the life of one of the most colourful political figures of recent years.
He is a rebel whose refusal to always follow the party line has made him a popular figure on the streets of London - and that may have a huge influence on the mayoral election on 4 May.
Mr Livingstone - dubbed "Red Ken" by the tabloids - is undoubtedly associated with Labour's left, but not predictably so.
He has, for instance, long been in favour of proportional representation for Westminster seats - a view not shared by many left-wingers.
He is also in favour of signing up to the European single currency, and had been arguing for one-member-one-vote elections within the party long before it became a key issue for New Labour modernisers.
And he has also been able to point out that some of the policies he advocated in London during the 1980s - and which made him a hate figure of the tabloid press (the Sun newspaper once described him as "the most odious man in Britain") - have since become acceptable government policy.
As GLC leader, he was in favour, for example, of talking to Sinn Fein and the IRA. He was a strong supporter of the recognition of gay rights and measures to address inequality faced by women and ethnic minorities.
Trained as teacher
And his high-profile period at the GLC saw campaigns against the council's abolition and in favour of its "Fares Fair" policy which pioneered the use of modern advertising techniques in political communication some time before the wider Labour Party discovered their effective use.
He worked as a cancer research laboratory technician at the Royal Marsden Hospital as his political career developed.
And in 1971, while training as a teacher at the Phillipa Fawcett College of Education and having joined Labour two years earlier, he was elected to Lambeth borough council, becoming vice-chairman of housing until 1973.
He remained on the council - with future prime minister John Major a fellow councillor - until 1978 when he opted to fight a seat on Camden council, where he became chair of housing.
Meanwhile, he had been elected a Greater London Councillor in Norwood in 1973, becoming vice-chairman of housing.
But he lost the position after rebelling against housing cuts by Labour GLC leader Sir Reg Goodwin in 1975.
In 1977 he became a GLC councillor for Hackney North, subsequently being elected to Camden Borough Council, where he was chair of housing until 1980.
Mr Livingstone's first attempt to become an MP failed when he lost in Hampstead at the general election which saw Margaret Thatcher sweep to power in 1979.
But he took up a position of power in May 1981 when, the day after Labour won a small majority on the GLC, group leader Andrew McIntosh was ousted and Livingstone voted into his place instead.
He held the leadership until the GLC was abolished by the Conservatives in 1986.
His leadership saw a number of controversial issues. In 1981, the council's "Fares Fair" policy, which significantly cut the price of travel on London Transport, was unexpectedly ruled illegal by the Law Lords.
It is undoubtedly true that he takes little apparent care with his public utterances, remains unrepentantly left-wing and has attacked the policies of Tony Blair - all of which he would happily admit.
His popularity in London, however, continues - and he sees that as a crucial factor in his decision to go it alone in the capital's mayoral elections.
Mr Livingstone is less well-liked within the Parliamentary Labour Party, however, where he is seen as a loner and blamed by some for having drawn the "loony left" label onto the party during its unelectable wilderness years.
He will be no more popular since making a decision which effectively seals his departure from Labour - potentially taking thousands of members with him.
Fight fire with fire
He had repeatedly said during his tussle with Mr Dobson and Glenda Jackson that he would not break from the party if he lost the mayoral selection battle.
But Labour will fight fire with fire, doing everything possible to prevent a Livingstone victory. There is no doubt he will face a vicious, personalised campaign.
Yet as a skilled media performer and campaigner, he will be adept at fighting back.
And his determination that the London Underground should stay in public hands - an undoubtedly popular policy - will be a key battleground in an election which will give Mr Blair many a sleepless night between now and 4 May.
It was widely felt that Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC because she disliked Mr Livingstone so much.
Mr Blair, it seems, doesn't appear to like him much better. And he will be even less keen on him now.
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