To avoid another debacle, Labour must let Mr Livingstone stand

The current uncertainty illustrates that the high-water mark of `control freakery' has passed

THE NEW Labour high command has been thrown into an unaccustomed tizzy over what the heck to do with Ken Livingstone. So much for the image of control freaks clicking their manipulative fingers and watching while all the political pieces fall neatly into place. In the case of Livingstone and the contest for London's mayor, they do not know what to do. Should they block him from putting his name forward? Can they find someone who will beat him and, crucially, go on to win the election against the Conservatives?

The indecision is, itself, a sign of how the political situation has changed since the heady days of the 1997 general election victory. When Livingstone first expressed an interest in standing, there was no doubt in the leadership's mind. I know of one leading Blairite councillor who was told by the PM himself that Livingstone would be blocked. The current uncertainty illustrates that the high-water mark of instinctive "control freakery" has passed, as it was always destined to do.

All prime ministers are control freaks when they are able to get away with it. Not surprisingly, Blair was able to do so when he was riding high after a landslide victory. John Major would have been a control freak if he had won a three-figure majority in 1992. He tried to be one at times, anyway, but was never any good at it. After the recent elections and the row in Wales over the election of Alun Michael, the situation has changed for Blair as well. In my view he would be making a big political error if he stopped Livingstone from throwing his hat into the ring.

This is not just for the obvious reason that an almighty political row would ensue, although that would be damaging enough. As the Welsh Minister, Peter Hain, told me recently, the perception of control freakery in Wales had "damaged the Labour Party, damaged Alun Michael and damaged Tony Blair". He was speaking before Labour's latest wretched performance in the European elections in Wales, where Plaid Cymru has emerged as an alternative centre- left party for Labour voters who can be bothered to go to a polling station.

Another, more subtle message came out from these midsummer polls. Labour's success in the elections to the Scottish Parliament has been obscured by the dismal results that followed. Yet earlier in the year it was these that seemed to have the most potential for wreaking havoc. Instead, Gordon Brown and his entourage headed north and turned the campaign around. Every SNP statement and interview was challenged. Labour's daily news conferences had clear messages each morning, which were pursued relentlessly for the rest of the day. In other words, Labour fought an election campaign with leading politicians who were genuinely committed to winning in Scotland and had a genuine passion for the Scottish Parliament. The subliminal message was clear: Labour cared about Scotland.

The message conveyed in Wales was different. The leadership gave the impression that victory was taken for granted, and its main priority was to impose a leader. In the European election campaign, the leadership had no clear message and no one especially keen to espouse the ill-defined cause. Voters are not daft. Instinctively indifferent, they can pick up the signals when politicians appear indifferent too.

So the challenge for the Labour leadership over the next 12 months is to show that it cares as passionately about London as it did in the elections in Scotland. This cause would not be helped by ditching Livingstone, who was, after all, the last person to lead an elected London authority and has been a London MP since 1987. The fatal subliminal message of such a brutal act would be: "We don't care so much about London, but we are bothered about who will give us least difficulty as mayor." We shall be back on that familiar Welsh territory again.

This means also that the leadership needs to reflect carefully on who it chooses to fight Livingstone. The Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, is favoured by some in Downing Street, although Blair has never discussed the issue with him. There is a problem, though. Dobson does not want the job. As for Mo Mowlam, she demonstrated her lack of enthusiasm by attending the book launch for Livingstone's biography. This was hardly the aggressive opening act in a mayoral leadership contest. Symbolic acts apart, I can report unequivocally that she does not want the job either.

What is more, the recent Tory success in the European elections makes it even more unlikely that a Cabinet star can be persuaded to stand. They would have not only to resign as cabinet minister, but also give up their seat in the Commons. If they were to beat Livingstone, which would be far from guaranteed, they would face a possible close contest against the Tory candidate. If they lost that, their political career would be over. Is this the "reward" Blair will offer Mowlam for arduous service in Northern Ireland? But, more important, it is that damaging subliminal message again: "We think Londoners can be bought off by a whiff of political charisma from a candidate chosen by the leadership who did not want to stand."

The mayoral contest next May will probably be closer than the Labour leadership thought likely a few weeks ago. This is not just because the Tories are more self-confident now. London has received much less attention from the Government than Scotland, although more voters live and work in the city. In a depressing Commons debate on the London Underground this week, John Redwood revealed that "before May 1997 a Tube train broke down once every 21 minutes... after nearly two years of New Labour, a Tube train breaks down every 16 minutes". What a Tory slogan: "Vote Tory and only three Tube trains an hour will break down." But Labour's response to the appalling state of the Underground has been far too slovenly. It has consisted of an inadequate injection of short-term cash and a still embryonic public/ private finance arrangement that will be handed over to a mayor who will then have no powers to change it. A Labour candidate will require near-magical persuasive powers to defend that record.

That candidate may not be Livingstone, even if he is allowed to put his name forward. Another potential candidate who would send a message that Labour cared about London is Nick Raynsford, the ministerial architect of the new London authority. There could be no doubting his commitment to the whole idea. I suspect that he would give Livingstone a run for his money, more so than the other declared candidate, Trevor Phillips. Apparently Raynsford is doomed for lack of charisma. But all the possible internal candidates have their flaws.

The Labour leadership should allow them to stand, then sit back and see what happens. For once, they do not have a choice; any other course of action would be much worse.

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