Let Ken Livingstone stand - the better to see him defeated

It's fairly obvious, isn't it, that Ken is a man who dislikes most of what Tony Blair stands for
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE a thousand stories out there in the big city, and pretty soon there'll be a mayoral candidate for each one. In the space of a couple of months the choice of possible London big chief has widened from the symbiotic Punch and Judy show of Ken versus Jeffrey, to include Glenda Jackson (or Glenda Banks as she was absent-mindedly rechristened by John Humphrys on the radio yesterday), Tony Banks, Steve Norris, Trevor Phillips - and sundry Lib Dems and minor Tories whose names I have forgot.

Nevertheless, the attention of the commentating classes is not yet entirely engaged by their various proposals for pedestrianising thoroughfares and is still firmly fixed on the continuing question of whether Labour should let Livingstone be one of the names on the internal party ballot to decide the candidate. Most scribblers and yackers feel that he should. Labour activists agree, as shown in this week's BBC poll of constituency chairpersons.

Actually everyone agrees (bar the ruthless manipulators of Millbank) that Ken should be allowed to run. So bear with me for a moment while I rehearse the reasons why he shouldn't. And a great deal of the issue essentially turns on what kind of animal Ken is. Is he (a) mostly supportive of Labour in power and of the Blair project - but with a number of drolly expressed reasonable doubts? Or (b) a staunch opponent of most of what has happened to Labour in the last decade, who actively organises and plots to achieve its reversal?

Let me apologise to Ken in advance for "smearing" him by quoting him selectively, if directly. Here he is, last year, on the economy: "Nothing could more drastically demonstrate the inadequacy of New Labour's economic project than the seemingly clueless response to the unfolding domestic and international economic problems." And again, weeks after the last general election: "A deep public sector financial crisis is now foreseeable, imminent, and can only be avoided if rapid action is taken in Labour's first budget."

I have yet to read Ken's explanation of how the "imminent" crisis failed to take place, maybe that too is imminent. Meanwhile, this is Ken's recent lament concerning other aspects of government policy: "How do we expect teachers to support us when we continue to support Chris Woodhead's attacks on their hard work in the class room? How can we expect staff in the public services to march happily to the polling station when they are still earning insulting levels of pay in the third year of a Labour government? And how do we expect young working-class people to enthusiastically endorse us after our attacks on lone parent benefit and our exclusion of young people from the full minimum wage?" Kepow.

So far all this suggests is a cheerful, if consistent, disloyalty, which is rarely balanced by any commendation of the Government's strategy. And there is, of course, one huge exception to this pattern and that is Livingstone's support for the Nato action in the Balkans. All the same, a pattern it remains. But it would be a mistake to think that Ken has confined himself to saying his bit on the policy issues of the day, and left it at that.

He has a project, and his project is the anti-Project project. This is Mr L last month on the question of political re-alignment: "The project of permanent re-alignment or even merger with the Liberal Democrats is the Phantom Menace of British politics." (What an ear the man has for the cultural vernacular!).

Ken is also an organiser, as he told Labour Left Briefing 20 months ago: "We've got to bring together and broaden the range of interests that worked effectively to defeat Mandelson. There are already informal meetings underway ... [for] the defence of the party as a working-class, trade-union-based party."

It's pretty obvious, isn't it, that here is a man who dislikes most of what Tony Blair stands for, and would raise three hearty cheers if the Labour leader were to fall under a tram and be replaced by a clone of Michael Foot. But no. Earlier this year Ken wrote an open letter to Tony, gushing: "I am convinced that your administration has the potential to be a great reforming government on a par with those of 1906 and 1945. There is simply no question of my seeking to use the mayorship as a platform to wage political warfare against this government."

So imagine that there you are, a grand London Labour panjandrum, entrusted with the well-being of your party and your city, and you have to decide whether either are served by a Livingstone candidacy. Can you believe that - bearing in mind that Ken's strong suit is not proposition, but opposition - he will go all wibbly and constructive? Or will Ken the Populist use London as a base from which to indulge his substantial dislike of the Government and ultimately launch his assault on the leadership itself?

Your problem is that Ken is one of the best-known politicians in a country which knows (and wants to get to know) very few. And he's an attractive figure. So you cannot at all rely on the mass membership to do the right thing and choose Glenda Banks or whoever instead. It's your party, your job to do the vetting, and it'd be better all round to grit your teeth, exclude Ken, and hope that the row all blows over as the fruits of economic upturn and increased public expenditure are increasingly evident.

Don't do it. Though partisans often do not realise it, political parties are not like golf clubs, where the club committee can make any decision it damn well pleases about who is in and who is out. The way Labour decides to consult its members is of enormous significance to those citizens who have never been members of the party. That's why the One Member One Vote debate (I can't remember where Ken was on that one) resonated with ordinary voters. It was a clear expression of a determination to take politics out of the caucus, and make it open. And therefore the means of election were seen as being even more important than the result of that election. For democrats, process must often take precedence over outcome.

So no candidate - however brilliant - who is selected by Labour in a ballot that excludes Livingstone, will be regarded by the voters as legitimate. As a consequence there would probably be a derisory turn-out and a catastrophic failure, in its first months, of the new London authority and mayor to garner public support. The enterprise would never recover. The risk of Nasty Ken is better than the near certainty of a Buggered London.

Therefore the best and only answer is to allow Livingstone to participate in the primaries, and then trust Labour voters not to select him. After all, those, like Tribune editor Mark Seddon, who are (correctly) worried about black representation in London's governance, could put their money where their mouths are, and vote for Trevor Phillips. Who'd make a pretty decent mayor.