Exit Mrs Gorman as Widow Twanky, stage right

`The London mayoral election reveals the truth about the Prime Minister's view of politics'
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The Independent Culture
THE PRIME Minister must be delighted. He always hoped that an elected mayor - a strong personality with charisma and conviction - would end the ideological battles (which often characterise local government) and concentrate voters' attention on the personality of the individuals who seek to lead great cities. In London, his prediction has proved to be wholly correct. No one can accuse the would-be mayoral candidates of wasting time on political ideas. Arguments about personalities have left no time for discussion of policy.

Even poor old Ken Livingstone - who tried to make an issue out of how Underground improvements are to be financed - has lamely agreed to support whatever manifesto is thrust upon him. So whether he, Frank Dobson or Glenda Jackson wins the nomination, Labour's candidate will fight on the same platform. Each one is left to argue that he or she is personally preferable to the other aspirants.

This week's burning issues - as the party's Titans compete to carry the socialist oriflamme into the final battle - is the allegation that Mr Dobson has lost heart and the counter-accusation that Mr Livingstone spread scurrilous and inaccurate rumours about a collapse in his opponent's morale. I once accused Tony Blair of trying to take politics out of politics. The preliminaries to the election of London's mayor have achieved exactly that. Politics has been replaced with farce.

Six weeks ago it would have seemed impossible, but the pre-election campaign has deteriorated since Lord Archer made his sudden exit. Voters with no concern for the good government of the capital may regard recent developments as a contribution towards the gaiety of life. The mayor of London will enjoy so few substantial powers that it is excusable to enjoy the antics of the last three weeks as political burlesque. Had Tory Central Office not disqualified Teresa Gorman, the whole contest could have been celebrated as a pantomime - which has nothing to do with Dick Whittington and his cat hearing the bells of London summoning him to turn again and become the first citizen of the metropolis.

Mrs Gorman herself would have been a splendid Widow Twankey. Frank Dobson is visibly Goldilocks's Three Bears all rolled into one. Glenda Jackson would have played Little Red (or at least Pale Pink) Riding Hood, with Ken Livingstone as the Big Bad Wolf.

The idea of electing a mayor has the worst possible antecedents. Racegoers would call it "by Michael Heseltine out of Peter Mandelson" - two characters who, had they lived in Communist China, would have been sent to work in the fields of Ho Nan until they forswore the cult of personality. Both those flamboyant figures liked the idea of celebrity candidates - the colourful individual who, being beholden to no political party, can do what he thinks best for the city that elects him.

That idea is, in itself, democratic nonsense. Representative government depends on elections that turn not on the character of candidates, but on the programme that they propose to implement. The tradition of mayors with no philosophical guidance apart from personal prejudices, is not encouraging. Mayor Lindsay, the charismatic "White Knight" of New York, abandoned the liberalism on which he was elected in order to propose Barry Goldwater as Republican presidential candidate. When Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater by the biggest margin in American history, Lindsay joined the Democrats. Candidates who run on their individual merits are by nature footloose. Nobody who really believes in a British form of representative democracy will want to foster the idea of the individual's ascendancy over a party programme.

Yet, on all the evidence, Tony Blair really does want personality to transcend politics. Unfortunately he wants the personality in question to agree with him in every particular. The only justification for having a mayor directly elected is the freedom that it gives to the successful candidate. But Tony Blair wants whoever runs London to be tied hand and foot to Downing Street's apron strings.

The London mayoral election - made, like everything New Labour does, in Mr Blair's image - reveals the truth about the Prime Minister's view of politics. First, he does not like the Labour Party, and wants the new Greater London government to be freed from the taint of socialism. Second, he has a Zarathustrian belief in the politician as hero - the lone champion of rights and responsibilities who saves the world from ideology. And third, he has not worked out how he reconciles those objectives with his obsessive desire to make every level of government conform to his own ideas. The result is a fiasco that diminishes the whole political process.