Focus: Turn again, Red Ken

The campaign to elect a Mayor of London has led to vicious in- fighting as the main parties try to block their front-runners
IT WAS intended to be a political earthquake, but it did not even register on the Richter scale.

This was the first press conference of a movement which could change British politics utterly - the "yes" campaign for an elected Mayor of London. Despite endorsements from celebrated Londoners such as Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins, the press was not impressed. London's local paper, the Evening Standard, judged the story worth no more than three paragraphs.

With less than six weeks to go until the referendum on whether London wants a mayor and elected assembly, the "yes" campaign has hit the headlines only once, and that was when one of its prime movers, the broadcaster Trevor Phillips, withdrew from the front line after Conservative complaints that his presence was a front for his own mayoral ambitions.

As for the Tories, they are making no noise, principally because they too have endorsed the "yes" campaign. One of the "yes-men" complains: "We got very little coverage because everyone agreed with each other." Opinion polls have around 70-80 per cent of Londoners wanting a strategic authority. A real "no" lobby has yet to be identified, leaving broadcasters struggling to find opponents to take part in the mandatory even-handed debate. The campaign is in danger of dying on its feet.

ON THE other hand, two significant election campaigns have taken off, both fiercely fought, because they involve internecine rivalry. The object is to spike the ambitions of the Labour and Conservative front- runners, both of whom are a potential embarrassment to the party leaderships.

From Downing Street the message is clear, if not yet loud. It's "Stop Ken": the former leader of the Greater London Council before Margaret Thatcher's execution of it, Ken Livingstone. Among the Conservatives, the battle cry is ABBA - "Any Body But Archer". The party hierarchy is desperate to find an alternative to the ubiquitous millionaire and best- selling novelist.

Candidates in both parties are likely to undergo American-style primaries - ballots of party members. To the alarm of party leaderships, Mr Livingstone and Lord Archer are solid favourites with their rank and file.

Tony Blair has the bigger problem. Mr Livingstone proved his popularity with party members last year by beating Peter Mandelson on to the National Executive Committee. His success was partly down to support from London where, as one moderniser put it, activists tend to be "a bunch of lefties". That raises the biggest Blair nightmareof all. If Mr Livingstone is selected as the official candidate then Mr Blair might have to back him.

"Stop Ken" campaigners are debating several strategies. The most obvious is the promotion of an alternative candidate. Mr Phillips, the early choice of the modernisers, is probably not well enough known, although some speak of him standing for the assembly and then being appointed to the position of the mayor's deputy. Glenda Jackson, the junior transport minister, has much higher recognition in the capital partly by dint of her former incarnation as an actress. Her roots in the party's soft-left, and her likely backing from John Prescott and Gordon Brown give her a good potential base. Likewise, Tony Banks could be a contender, albeit one more gaffe- prone than Ms Jackson.

Some senior party figures believe, however, that only a London cabinet minister with a well-organised campaign could beat Mr Livingstone. That raises two possibilities: Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, and Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Other strategies to head off Mr Livingstone range from the unwise to the improbable. He could be removed from the short- list by the NEC, although as a member of the committee itself that would open the party to ridicule. Labour could deprive him of the support of the Prime Minister, and cash with which to run his campaign. That, however, would turn him into a martyr and set the leadership up for a humiliation. It is likely to be made clear that any MP elected as mayor would be forced to resign their seat, something Mr Livingstone is reluctant to do.

There is a suggestion there should be no official party candidate at all, thereby depriving Mr Livingstone of party backing. This might open the way to more independent candidates - business leaders such as Richard Branson, and some Labour MPs. But such a move would split the anti-Tory vote and could present victory to the Conservatives. Finally, there is the ultimate sanction: promotion for Mr Livingstone to ministerial office. As one source put it: "Ken could be using this as a bargaining chip."

On the Conservative side the search for an alternative to Lord Archer is equally aggressive, with party bosses alarmed by the vehemence of the Evening Standard's campaign against the peer. Steven Norris, the former transport minister, will be a potentially powerful candidate, although his profile is lower than Lord Archer's. Chris Patten, the former cabinet minister and Governor of Hong Kong, is also discussed. Many believe Mr Patten, from the wetter end of the party, would be ill-advised to take on Lord Archer in a battle for the backing of party activists. Only the Lib Dems have a clear-cut and popular choice: Simon Hughes.

THE field of candidates reflects the fact that, although the mayor may not have revenue-raising powers, he or she will have huge influence. The election will change the face of political campaigning. In first-past- the-post elections, parties devote efforts to targeting swing voters in marginal seats. In London candidates will have to decide on whether to try and go for the broad middle ground, or to assemble a coalition of potential supporters.

That explains some of the positioning of candidates; Mr Norris disowned Mrs Thatcher's education reforms, presaging a move to the centre-ground. Mr Phillips, the only likely candidate who is black, could hope to benefit from some of the 20-25 per cent of the capital's population from ethnic minorities. The doubt derives from apathy. Turnout in London elections averages about 40 per cent and could be lower this year. As one source put it: "Because the Government remains popular there is not going to be a high turnout to give it a bloody nose."

The parties may be concentrating on the wrong campaign. The early politicking about candidates before May's referendum has even been won may be putting the cart before the horse. A low turnout and indifferent mandate could yet undermine the legitimacy of London's mayor, whoever it is. And one Labour source added: "Don't forget, if anything goes wrong it will throw the spotlight on the whole constitutional reform agenda."

A day in the life of the Mayor of London

7.30am Radio car arrives for interview on the state of London's Underground. Promise heads will roll if nothing improves.

8.30 Breakfast meeting/charm offensive with US chief executive over inward investment plans for East End.

9.00 Phone conversation with chief executive of Transport for London. Yet another ultimatum.

10.30 Press conference over the Tube crisis. Give deadline for Northern Line to improve its record.

11.00 Meeting with officials of Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions over funding. More lobbying.

11.30 Leave for Heathrow to greet Mayor of Moscow at start of official visit.

1.00pm Host official lunch for the Mayor of Moscow, accepting invitation for reciprocal visit later in the year.

2.30 Phone conversation with Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police over reports of rising levels of street crime. Approach him tactfully and win reassurances that more men will be put on the beat.

3.30 Attend Question Time at the Greater London Assembly. Given a rough ride on transport.

5.00 Meeting with Lambeth chief executive over environment plans.

7.00 Attend gala opening of film in West End. Seated annoyingly behind the royals.

10.30 Late-night social drink with friendly broker: don't forget the salary for the mayor is expected to be pounds 90,000.