How to stop Jeffrey Archer becoming mayor of London

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THERE IS a rumour. It may be completely untrue, but like the lie that is half-way round the world before the truth has got its shoes on, it seems to have become accepted fact among the habitues of the bars of Westminster and the pubs of Millbank. The story goes that the fundamentalist mullahs now running the Labour Party have wasted pounds 15,000 commissioning an opinion poll to see what would happen if I stood as an independent candidate for mayor of London!

The findings of this alleged poll have become the stuff of urban myth. It is claimed to reveal not only that I would beat the Labour candidate into third place if I stood as an independent, but that I would also win more votes as an independent than if I were to stand as the Labour Party candidate.

So pervasive is this rumour that journalists have now started telling me that they believe the Labour leadership is going to let me have a fair run for the Labour nomination. When I press them as to the source of this encouraging story, they always insist there is nothing specific, it's just a general feeling they are picking up. Apparently, small groups of Millbank anoraks sit around at Islington dinner parties (presumably not in their anoraks) debating which of two rival nightmare scenarios is the most likely.

Nightmare scenario number one is that Labour's NEC abolishes my right to stand for the nomination, and that in a fit of pique I take my ball away and stand as an independent. If Labour's mythical opinion poll is to be believed, I am then elected mayor and Labour's poisoned chalice candidate comes third behind Jeffrey Archer. Of course, this a complete nonsense because I have made clear again and again that I have no intention of leaving the Labour Party. It is becoming very tiresome to have to keep repeating this.

Nightmare scenario number two is that Labour's NEC abolishes my right to stand for the Labour nomination and although, as a loyal Labour Party member, I accept this decision and throw myself wholeheartedly into trying to elect whichever ghastly little toady Labour has imposed, the backlash of angry Londoners leads to the election of my noble Lord Archer of Weston- super-Mare.

While it has become fashionable among the metropolitan elite to assume that Jeffrey Archer is unelectable, it was also assumed by Labour's NEC that - however badly Labour did in Wales after the clash between Rhodri Morgan and Alun Michael - we should still win an absolute majority of the seats in the new Welsh Assembly. Of course, in reality Labour crashed to its most humiliating defeat since the war. With swings of up to 35 per cent against the Labour Party, Labour's performance in Wales was even worse than during the catastrophic general election of 1983. As one who has been debating London issues with Jeffrey Archer for the last two years, I have no illusions about his campaigning abilities. Even hardened old left-wing activists who have come along to watch the debates have gone away saying: "He wouldn't be a bad mayor." And Jeffrey is no fool, having cunningly positioned himself to exploit any backlash by Londoners in the event that the Labour machine rigs the London Labour mayoral selection contest.

Jeffrey Archer has worked out that under the partial proportional representation system that Labour has devised for the mayoral election, he needs to position himself firmly on the left. And before you dismiss this idea as too bizarre for words, it's worth remembering that his voting record as a Conservative MP during Edward Heath's government was one of consistent left-wing rebellion. The records show that Jeffrey Archer voted against the Heath government more consistently than any other Tory MP, and not just on issues such as his opposition to introducing museum charges and abolishing free school milk.

Labour's complicated mayoral voting system means that each London voter has two votes for mayor, a first and a second choice. After all the first choice votes have been counted, unless one candidate has 51 per cent of the vote, the top two candidates will go into a second ballot, in which the second-choice votes of all those who voted for eliminated candidates will be counted. Those whose second choice is for one of the two remaining candidates will then be added to their totals to determine the winner.

You don't have to be a genius to realise that the Labour and Tory candidates are almost certain to be placed first and second, but neither is likely to win an absolute majority on the first ballot. The winner, therefore, will be the candidate most able to attract the second preference votes of the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and all the small environmental and left-wing parties, not to mention Screaming Lord Sutch.

A quick perusal of Jeffrey Archer's manifesto rapidly reveals that it is almost identical with mine, with its firm commitment to public transport, high-speed bus lanes, tackling racism in the police force and leading a drive on poverty and unemployment in the inner city. Archer has placed himself perfectly to exploit any public backlash about Millbank control freakery if I am barred from seeking the Labour nomination.

Next week's Euro elections will be the best guide to what is likely to happen in the London mayor election, as they will be a straightforward test of support for the Government, without being complicated by factors such as unpopular local Labour councils. At the general election, Labour got 49 per cent of Londoners' votes to the Tories' 31 per cent, but by the London borough council elections a year ago, Labour's support had slumped to 40 per cent.

I suspect that Labour will do a bit better in London than it does nationally in next week's Euro elections, but the form of proportional representation that Labour chose to use for the elections is doing us no favours. We have gone for the worst of all options, in which voters have to cast their vote simply for the party and are denied any influence on which of that party's candidates gets elected.

I have no doubt that Labour will under-perform at these elections. Voters like to know whom they are voting for and come the next general election those Labour MPs who put in the work in their constituencies will demonstrate this by doing better than those who haven't. But this will show that Labour can't take voters for granted, and the issue of who is your candidate is becoming more important with every passing year. Control freaks please note.