The Livingstone Affair: So where can Labour go from here?

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WHATEVER THE outcome of today's crucial "second interview" for Red Ken, the path ahead for all Labour hopefuls for London mayor is strewn with difficulty.

With the mayoral election scheduled for 4 May the party's delays have landed it in the position of looking unprepared for the real race against the Tory candidate, Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare.

If Mr Livingstone is blocked today he is certain to lodge a legal challenge, citing repeated briefings against him and leaked comments he made to the Labour Party selection panel on Tuesday. The case could drag on for weeks.

It will add to the embarrassment the party is already facing from an inquiry by the Data Protection Registrar into Frank Dobson's access to Labour membership lists.

If Mr Livingstone is not blocked, ballot papers are likely to be distributed in the next few days to the 68,000 party members, 75 MPs, MEPs and GLA candidates and 450,000 trade union affiliates. The panel should announce today the timetable for the electoral college vote. A lengthy contest would benefit Mr Dobson and allow him to try to make up ground lost in the opinion polls and the Millbank campaign to discredit Mr Livingstone.

Once Labour has selected its candidate, he or she will join Lord Archer and Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat choice on the hustings.

The mayoral election will begin four weeks before polling day, but hectic campaigning is sure to occur well before then. A supplementary vote system will be used in the election. This means that the five million voters will have to put only two names in order on their ballot. The third- placed candidate's second preferences will be distributed until one person gets more than 50 per cent of the vote.

The winner, with the biggest personal mandate of any politician in Europe apart from the French President, will then move into a pounds 20m glass office on the Thames.