Is Mr Blair foolish enough to try to stop me running for mayor of London?
Wednesday 10 November 1999
No, it's a question of whether I shall pass a hypothetical loyalty test, which in fact isn't even mentioned in the application form for Labour's London mayor nomination, which I am busily filling in. Yesterday's two- page spread in the London Evening Standard setting my articles in The Independent against a series of "loyalty" tests was good fun. But, much as the sudden interest in my outpourings may gladden the heart of some, I doubt whether it has much to do with real politics.
On 5 August I wrote to Labour's general secretary, Margaret McDonagh, asking her to look into a long line of stories that had appeared in the press, implying that Labour sources are briefing journalists about the mechanism by which I might be excluded from standing for the job.
A story had already appeared in two broadsheets, alleging that a transcript of an interview with me on Newsnight, conducted by David Aaronovitch in February, was likely to be used to show that I am unfit to be mayor of London.
In The Sunday Times (1 August 1999), Michael Prescott reported: "Downing Street has already drawn up a `block Ken' plan. A transcript of a Newsnight interview Livingstone gave last February is being circulated to people likely to be on the party board that will shortlist official Labour candidates for mayor. The Blairites want his interview panel to do the same, then bar him on grounds of likely disloyalty."
In The Independent it was reported (5 August 1999) that the Newsnight interview "may provide the `silver bullet' that kills his hopes of becoming mayor of London. Officials at Labour's Millbank headquarters believe that resurrecting Mr Livingstone's criticism of the Government will enable the party to veto him from the shortlist of Labour candidates on which London party members will vote at the end of this year." Quoting extensively from the Aaronovitch interview, it added: "A transcript of the interview will be sent to the London Labour panel that will quiz candidates and draw up the shortlist. The panel, said to be dominated by Blair loyalists, may repeat some of the questions put to Mr Livingstone on the programme."
There is a gaping hole in all of this. Millbank must have taken advice, and therefore must realise that any selection system that has mechanisms built into it to stop one candidate from seeking office is by definition deeply questionable, not just morally but procedurally. Should I be ruled out next Tuesday on the basis of the "Newsnight model", Labour would then be exposed as having agreed on a system designed to exclude me, and then having briefed reporters to confirm it. It wouldn't stand up.
The sensitivity of Millbank to this question was exposed yesterday, when it was confirmed that Baroness Uddin had resigned from the London selection board after her comments about my candidacy on Radio 4 threatened to undermine the board's neutrality.
There is also a political problem associated with the "Newsnight option". The Millbank Tendency would not risk ruling me out over issues of policy, because on all of the rebellions quoted against me (such as lone parent benefits, and last week's vote on disability benefits) my views are shared by the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members and voters. My exclusion on political grounds would open up a hornets' nest in the London Labour Party.
Take the question of the part-privatisation of the Underground. Not one Londoner in a thousand wants it. As many as 66 per cent of London voters want the Tube to remain solely in the public sector. I certainly have not met a single person who thinks it is a good idea to hand over the sub-surface Tube lines to Railtrack. The problem for the "Newsnight option" is that if I were excluded for agreeing with almost every Londoner, a majority of party members, every leading academic and most commentators, including Max Hastings, the editor of the Evening Standard, then there would be a crisis. To have such a mainstream view excluded would reduce the Labour selection to farce.
That's why they can't do it.
Senior party figures must know this. The "Newsnight option" is a rather blunt piece of spin designed to get every political correspondent running around repeating David Aaronovitch's questions to me endlessly as a mechanism to "prove" my disloyalty. It is intended not as a bureaucratic mechanism to exclude me, but a political attack.
As I said in my letter to Margaret McDonagh at the time, I am sure it is not beyond the wit of the formidable Millbank rebuttal team to kill these stories off. If party officials were strongly to deny these stories and refuse to give them any credence, then they would quickly disappear. My warnings that Millbank needs to get to grips with this sort of story before it demoralises the party membership have been left unheeded.
Half of the political correspondents in the capital are propping up bars as I write, speculating on whether I shall pass a hypothetical loyalty test. The British Prime Minister, in full view of the world, is not about to rig a selection or risk a haemorrhage of the Greater London Labour Party membership, based on a script from Newsnight. He's a better politician than that.
The Independent reported one blinkered minister last week, who said: "There is an intense debate going on about what to do. Blocking Ken would send the right signal to the voters but a terrible one to the party." This the nub of the problem. The hardline faction seeking to get me barred completely misunderstands the level of feeling among the core Labour electorate, as they misjudged it in Wales earlier this year. Contrary to the line of the supporters of the "Newsnight option", the vast majority of London voters regard me as their preferred Labour candidate for the election next May. If my candidacy were not so much in tune with the mood of broad public opinion, we should never have got into this mess in the first place.
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