Leading Article: Labour must learn the real meaning of devolution

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The Independent Culture
LABOUR'S ATTEMPT to stop Ken Livingstone becoming Mayor of London seems to take ever more ludicrous turns. But in considering dispensing with an initial nomination phase in which trade unions and constituency parties would put forward their preferred choices, Labour's control freaks may get more than they bargained for.

Their aim is to prevent a "Livingstone bandwagon" developing. If too many local parties nominate him, so the thinking goes, he will become unstoppable. What makes Labour's leaders think that such a transparent device will stop the party in London calling for the man they so obviously want as their candidate? Or that the manoeuvre will make it easier to reject him at a central selection panel? They are more likely to ignite rebellion against the centre.

Mr Livingstone has his eccentricities. If he does become Mayor of London, he will take every opportunity - as his column in this newspaper suggests - to assert his independence. But this is no reason to stop him becoming Mayor. At least he has a genuine passion for London, unlike the machine politicians - such as Pauline Green - touted as an alternative. If devolution is to mean anything, it should mean that local people, and not centralised party machines, have control over who is to be on the ballot. New Labour seems determined to treat the contests rather like by-elections, as adjuncts to national image-mongering.

New Labour wants to control everything it touches. This is also evident in the choice of First Minister of Wales, where Labour is attempting to prevent another contest for their candidature after the departure of Ron Davies.

Here, too, their tactics may backfire. Polls show that Labour candidates for the Welsh assembly overwhelmingly back Rhodri Morgan, the challenger to New Labour's preferred choice, Alun Michael. Labour activists and voters may similarly take offence at being offered a "consensus" fait accompli.

Similar tactics could also land Labour in the courts. Selection panels, written applications and National Executive Committee vetting have succeeded in placing unpalatable candidates for next year's Euro-elections far enough down the ballot to have little chance of election. Christine Oddy, a sitting Euro-MP in the West Midlands, has found herself seventh in a list of eight Labour choices in her region. She blames her support for Labour's old Clause Four as the reason, and is threatening to take the leadership to court.

Perhaps she is being too cynical; but if Labour were not being so cynical themselves in London, they would be less open to that charge.

There is much to admire about New Labour. But it should wake up to the harm it is doing itself, and local democracy, and allow that internal devolution which would help spread real power. What is it so frightened of?

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