There's no business like showbusiness - except politics

`Tony will do his best to look surprised as he throws his arms round a bearded Yorkshireman'
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The Independent Culture
THE DAY that Labour decided that the restoration of a London-wide authority should centre around the election of an individual mayor, it became inevitable that personalities would count for more than policies. There's no business like showbusiness - except politics in the Nineties. Jeffrey Archer's victory over Steven Norris was based on a simple personality difference: Archer had one, Norris didn't. Tory members knew who Archer was because Archer is a spectacular self-publicist, which is why he wants to be mayor in the first place.

The Liberals had a problem because they only had one MP who'd been on Have I Got News For You a lot and, on that basis, they'd already given him leadership of the party. So now they are lumbered with a candidate who is not even a household name in her own house. She desperately needs to get her name about more, but I won't spoil the fun by mentioning it here.

And now Labour are also in trouble because the candidate that they want to get the nomination has not been on telly nearly as much as the one that they don't. The outsider Glenda Jackson used to be on telly a lot but then she did terrible damage to her political chances by deciding to concentrate on politics.

In keeping with the showbiz theme, next week's selection panel is threatening to turn into a political version of Blind Date. The three Labour hopefuls will sit on stools behind a screen while Tony asks each of them completely unscripted questions. "Contestant number one - people say I like to get my own way. Would you cuddle up to me or rub me up the wrong way?" Then the screen will come back and Tony will do his best to look surprised and delighted with his choice as he throws his arms around the bearded Yorkshireman who used to be his health secretary.

Opponents of the Government claim that Ken Livingstone is popular among Labour members because they are fed up with the control freaks in Millbank and they wish to register a protest. But if the anti-Millbank candidate was John Cryer or another low-profile left-winger, the Labour Party wouldn't have this problem. Ken is popular because he has consistently maintained a very high profile whether it's appearances on chat shows or advertising red Leicester cheese. I once co-wrote a radio show called A Look Back At The Future set in the 21st century in which Livingstone was Labour prime minister. We couldn't decide which impressionist did the best Ken Livingstone, until we realised that no one played that part better than Red Ken himself. He came along, did an uncanny Ken Livingstone and the audience cheered.

No one plays the part of martyr better than Red Ken. We loved him for it when the baddie was Maggie Thatcher and now the baddies are those bossy apparatchiks at Millbank he's revived his greatest role and it's playing all over London now. But the trouble is that this is the role Ken will play if he gets to be mayor. He will continue to be poor picked-on Ken; because like all showbiz personalities he'll always give the audience the lines for which they grew to love him. Fine if you want entertainment but not if you want the best leadership London could have.

Tony Blair is haunted by the spectre of Red Ken running London. He believes that it threatens to undermine all the work he has done dragging Labour out of the self-indulgent Eighties.

But for me the scarier prospect is Labour's competence as a political machine returning to the useless farce of the Eighties. I cannot believe that Millbank are trying to fix it for Frank Dobson, because these people do not normally make such a hash of political fixing. The well-oiled machine of the 1997 general election campaign seems a million miles from the identical personalised letters that went out from various London MPs saying why they were supporting Frank Dobson. I'm just relieved there wasn't a photocopied letter to Brent East members in support of Frank Dobson signed by Ken Livingstone.

Labour should allow Ken Livingstone to compete for the nomination. It's one thing to exclude by-election candidates that no one knows, but with the exception of actors who leave Coronation Street to go to Hollywood, you can't just make famous people disappear.

Then Labour should openly and honestly explain why they believe that he'd make a bad mayor. Most London Labour MPs do not want their figurehead to be an alternative leader of the opposition but have not yet said so loudly enough. Then we could have a proper debate about what each candidate stands for. The only alternative is to make the former health secretary a bigger showbiz star than Ken or Glenda. And for me, the image of Frank Dobson snogging Geri Halliwell on the front of The Sun is more than the Labour Party could cope with right now.