Mr Livingstone can be defeated by argument

`What exactly was the point of Frank Dobson if Ken Livingstone is going to be excluded after all?'
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TWO WEEKS ago, the London Evening Standard carried a full-page advertisement, published by the Ken Livingstone campaign, with a big, shouting headline: "Who Do You Think Jeffrey Archer Would Rather Run Against?" Above it were mugshots of Frank Dobson and Mr Livingstone himself. While the picture of Mr Livingstone showed him open-necked, staring purposefully, visionarily even, into the camera, the singularly ill-lit one of Mr Dobson had obviously been chosen with equal care. The kindest thing that can be said about the image of the - usually - robustly normal-looking former health secretary is that it closely resembled one of a man who been dragged through a hedge after playing King Lear for his local amateur dramatic society.

Now, there is not a politician in the country of whom there are not pictures that he or she would prefer never to see in print. And given that this was presumably the worst that Mr Livingstone's team could find, Mr Dobson got off rather more lightly than many other politicians - probably Mr Livingstone included - would have done in similar circumstances.

Nevertheless, it's quite a long time since such a crudely effective piece of agitprop has been used by one prominent member of the Labour Party against another. It is tempting to think the advertisement might also subliminally help Mr Livingstone if he were to stand as an independent candidate - which, of course, he has repeatedly said he won't do. And, finally, since Mr Livingstone has made quite a lot out of what he says Mr Dobson is spending in this campaign, I'm told that the going rate for a full page in the Standard is between pounds 16,000 and pounds 18,000.

The danger, however, is that some of the more zealous Blairite apparatchiks may draw exactly the wrong conclusion from the advertisement, and use its undoubtedly unfraternal tone as the latest addition to a charge sheet drawn up for the purpose of keeping Mr Livingstone off the Labour shortlist of mayoral hopefuls when it is drawn up tomorrow week. Certainly, there is new talk of doing just that with Mr Livingstone. One member of the London regional executive team who will decide the shortlist next week has suggested that that would indeed be her preference.

These arguments have been heightened by the wide and justified dismay among Labour loyalists about the faltering start to Frank Dobson's campaign. Over the last 72 hours, ministers have routinely complained that the press is obsessed by process rather than the real issues facing London. But deep down they know these complaints are hollow; it wasn't the press that mucked up the process. If it's true, as it appears to be, that all MEPS are given access to the membership lists for London, then it is quite likely that the Data Protection Registrar will find that no law was broken.

But that doesn't make it politically smart to use the list unilaterally to conduct a mailshot - of anyway dubious value - without first ensuring that other candidates had the same access.

Second, the lengthy period of uncertainty - reflecting real indecision in the party's higher ranks - over whether Mr Livingstone should run has made that question - quite reasonably - the most interesting of the campaign so far.

Perhaps that advertisement of 27 October does strengthen the case for disqualifying Mr Livingstone. I have, in any case, argued before that if Mr Livingstone were standing in a parliamentary by-election - let alone for a job with a larger direct electorate than any in Europe apart from the French presidency - there would be good grounds for excluding him.

But these arguments are still, even at this late stage, outweighed by those in favour of taking the risk and beating him fair and square in a fight for the hearts and minds of the London party.

The first is the most obvious danger that, if disqualified, Livingstone would run as an independent - as he surely will - resulting in a messy series of defections, expulsions and legal action lasting years. But there are others.

The electorate itself, it is safe to assume, will not like it if he is disqualified. One of the big lessons from the Australian referendum is that ordinary voters don't like politicians' stitch-ups. The most direct implication, of course, is for House of Lords reform, where the refusal to accept a president chosen by the politicians rather than by the voters themselves underlines how unpopular an appointed second chamber threatens to be. But there is an indirect relevance to the mayoralty, which is that Livingstone's exclusion will be unpopular - and, incidentally, increase his appeal as an independent candidate.

Another is the question of what exactly was the point of Mr Dobson if Mr Livingstone is going to be excluded after all? Given the difficulty of beating Mr Livingstone, it would have been very belittling to the job of mayor if no cabinet minister had thought it important enough to challenge him for the job.

This is one of the reasons why Mr Blair - unsuccessfully - tried to persuade Mo Mowlam to run for the posit ion back in July. But if Mr Livingstone was going to be excluded, then Nick Raynsford or Trevor Phillips, both keen on doing the job, might as well have been left to take their chances.

A further point is this: to quite a big extent Mr Livingstone is a fashionable candidate because he is a lightning conductor for a discontent with the Blair administration which the Tories, for reasons of ideology and electoral weakness, have not so far been able to harness. That is only, in the end, going to be contained by political argument rather than what used to be called in the Soviet Union "administrative means".

And those arguments are more easily won than they look at the moment. It isn't just little matters such as Mr Livingstone's contribution to the successive Labour defeats in the Eighties, or the fact that - having been persuaded, by his own account, by no less than Red Ted Knight - he supported British troop withdrawal from Northern Ireland when such a course would have led to a bloodbath. Or that he has chosen to use the Tories' exact slur of saying that Gordon Brown has introduced "stealth taxes". Or that he is vague about whether he would remain an MP if he were granted only one term.

It's much more fundamental than that. The powers that make the mayor's job genuinely exciting are going to accrue in direct relation to the kind of man who has it. Mr Dobson, as it happens, is likely to be his own man in office. But the mayor who persuades Gordon Brown to loosen the purse strings for a city with a GDP bigger than Sweden is unlikely to be a man who not all that long ago was calling on the Chancellor to resign, as Mr Livingstone has.

As it happens, the premiss of the Livingstone advert may be wrong. Lord Archer would probably prefer a Livingstone candidacy to maintain the cosy relationship in which neither man attacks the other personally. But all these are political arguments capable of being won openly. The man who bravely persuaded his party to dump Clause Four now needs to accept that a crusade and not a stitch-up is what's needed to deal with Ken Livingstone.