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Tuesday, 7 March, 2000, 17:05 GMT
Livingstone sparks Labour inquest

Margaret McDonagh took lead from Tony Blair
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

The battle to become London mayor is certain to be a bloody one - but the inquest into the Labour shambles that ended with Ken Livingstone going it alone will be just as gory.

Ministers and party officials are going around insisting that there is no need for recriminations and that the selection of its candidate was handled as well as it could possibly have been.

But to most Labour members, let alone outsiders, the whole thing looked like a disaster from start to finish. And it has landed the party in one of its greatest ever crises.

London Mayor
Whatever the spin doctors say now, there will be some bitter soul searching in the aftermath of the contest.

Front of the queue, of course, is Labour's tough-talking general secretary Margaret McDonagh who presided over the contest to find a Labour candidate.

Fingers are already pointing in her direction, with predictions that she should start preparing her CV.

If she does become the victim of the post-mortem, it will not happen immediately.

The party - and nowadays that means Tony Blair - will take its time dismissing her in an attempt to distance the move from the mayoral farce.

Best asset

The party's campaign coordinator Ian McCartney has insisted that all talk of her losing her job is "nonsense."

"Margaret McDonagh is one of the best assets the Labour Party has got," he told BBC's Today programme.

Former general secretary Tom Sawyer echoed the comments, adding that he probably would not have been able to do things any differently.

The argument from the Labour leadership is that, once devolution takes place, it is difficult for it to be controlled from the centre - that is supposed to be the point of the exercise.

But that is precisely why devolution in Wales and Scotland has been such a mess for Labour and why it has all come to such a devastating head with the mayoral contest.

Right from the very start, the centre - and that again means Tony Blair - tried to control the outcome.

First he tried to stop Mr Livingstone from getting on the Labour shortlist of candidates.

That ended with the marathon sittings by the selection panel as they desperately looked for ways of ruling him out.

Allegedly it was during this three-day period that Tony Blair decided it was all doing the party too much damage and Mr Livingstone should be allowed to stand after all.

Then there was the U-turn over the final ballot. Mr Blair dropped his original pledge that it would be done one a one-member-one-vote system and instead opted for the electoral college arrangement - opening himself to the charge of being decidedly Old Labour.

Unions ballotted

He persistently claimed this was the procedure used to elect him as leader, but that is not strictly true.

Unions in that contest were required to ballot their members whereas, in the mayoral contest, one giant union used a block vote to help deny Mr Livingstone victory.

Finally, of course, even the electoral college failed to produce an overwhelming victory for the leadership, with Mr Blair's candidate Frank Dobson winning by just 3%.

And throughout this entire period the Labour machine at its Millbank HQ has been issuing a constant stream of anti-Livingstone propaganda.

Few believe things can be done like this in future and the entire episode has raised a fresh question mark over Labour's enthusiasm for elected mayors in other cities

So there will be some serious questions asked in the aftermath of what has become Labour's greatest crisis for more than a decade, and it is possible heads will roll.

The problem, however, is that seeking scapegoats can easily backfire.

In his interview, Mr McCartney declared: "Margaret McDonagh is a paid official of the Labour Party.

"Politicians run the Labour Party, the National Executive, and we take responsibility for our actions as politicians."

And, for many Labour MPs, therein lies the problem.

Attack Margaret McDonagh, who was the instrument, then you inevitably attack the man wielding the instrument - and that, they insist, was Tony Blair.

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See also:

07 Mar 00 |  UK Politics
Livingstone calls for London's cash
06 Mar 00 |  UK Politics
'Duty to London' calls for Ken
06 Mar 00 |  UK Politics
Blair's mayor crisis
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