London Mayor: Citizen Ken sends Millbank's plans down the Tube

Labour's shortlist scheme in turmoil after former GLC leader refuses to toe the Party line over privatisation of Underground
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The Independent Online
IT WAS all supposed to have been so different. After a gruelling but fair interview, Ken Livingstone was to have joined the Labour Party's shortlist for London mayor.

Downing Street, which had briefed journalists at the weekend about such an outcome, expected it. The press expected it. Even the candidates expected it. Unfortunately, no one had told the 12 good men and women true on the London Selection Board how to cope with Mr Livingstone's stubborn refusal to back down over partial privatisation of the Tube.

Mr Livingstone, mayoral favourite and arch enemy of Labour's "Millbank Tendency", had walked fearlessly into the lion's den yesterday for the most important job interview of his life. Like his three rivals, Frank Dobson, Glenda Jackson and Ken Baldry, Mr Livingstone was led into the nondescript first floor office room in Millbank Tower that had been chosen for the big event.

With the selection board arranged on three sides around him, "Red Ken" could have been forgiven for feeling ever so slightly lonely. After he delivered a 10-minute speech outlining his vision for the capital - no tube fare rises for four years, conductors on buses - it became clear that most of the panel were not going to give him an easy ride.

Ranged against him was a panel led by Jim Fitzpatrick, MP for Poplar and Canning Town and a former critic of the Livingstone style, Ian McCartney, the Cabinet Office minister, and Clive Soley, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Read from a print-out handed to each of the panel members, the questions were mixed, with follow-up queries aimed at testing the limits of all candidates' loyalties. Within minutes, the Government's plans to improve the Tube emerged as the sticking point. Mr Soley confronted the issue, asking if Mr Livingstone would agree to any other policy if it was agreed by the wider party.

Discussion continued for some 20 minutes as panel members attacked his stance and Mr Livingstone claimed that his plan for a bond issue was much cheaper than a partial sell-off to Railtrack. Then, to quote one Millbank insider, "he just lost it". The normally smooth demeanour of the former GLC leader cracked as it became obvious there was no common ground on the issue.

In a crucial outburst that may come to haunt him, Mr Livingstone appeared to say that he would withdraw as official Labour candidate if he disagreed with a manifesto imposed on him.

Silently, earnestly, a group of Millbank apparatchiks scribbled down Mr Livingstone's replies like frenzied reporters at a murder trial. Other than the disagreement over the Tube he batted off the rest of the panel's googlies with accustomed ease.

Contrary to expectations, there was no explicit "oath of allegiance" to sign, but candidates were asked if they would abide by the result. Not surprisingly, they all agreed. As Mr Lvingstone emerged from the rough and tumble, he looked slightly shaken, if not stirred. A solitary Livingstone groupie, wearing an umbrella hat with "Ken for Mayor", told him he looked well. "Yeah, well, it's the drugs," he said.

It was only when the panel then began discussing his comments that the carefully laid plans appeared to break down. As the panel members argued over exactly how disloyal Mr Livingstone was likely to be, it was clear that the whole project was in trouble. The Prime Minister, due to appear on the early evening news, had to cancel scheduled TV interviews.

London regional members on the panel argued with MPs that it was unacceptable for a candidate to declare so publicly against party policy. When the smoke finally emerged at 8.30pm, and Mr Soley read out a prepared statement announcing an adjournement, it was obvious that Labour's whole selection process was in a mess.

Margaret McDonagh, the party's general secretary, may be the one who is forced to pay for the stream of delays and mistakes that have dogged the whole process.