A 'vile campaign', but someone's got to win it

Ken Livingstone looked to be heading for a triumphant return to front-line politics last night after early poll results showed that he had a commanding lead in the race to be mayor of London.

The former GLC leader's expected victory, together with the loss of several hundred local council seats around the country to the Tories, was set to cap the most disastrous set of elections for Tony Blair since he came to power.

Mr Livingstone broke his silence of the last 48 hours to attack the "absolutely vile" campaign against him as he cast his vote in the Greater London Authority election.

The MP said that Labour's eve-of-poll advert linking him with the defacement of the Cenotaph was just the latest in a long line of smears.

"It has been a negative campaign and I don't think Londoners will want another like this. We have tried to run a campaign without negative campaigning at all and I think people like that," he said.

Mr Livingstone, who is likely to appoint the Green Party's Darren Johnson as his deputy mayor, stressed that he would implement a "broad administration" if he were elected.

People would be "quite surprised" to find that a Livingstone administration did not mean London "disappearing into a great cavernous anarchistic hole," he added.

Amid accusations that he was fleeing the electoral chaos, Mr Blair flew to Ulster for peace process talks last night after a day on which more than 20 million people in the UK had the chance to vote.

As well as the embarrassing return of Mr Livingstone, ministers were bracing themselves for the loss of more than 400 Labour seats on councils across England.

Labour insiders warned that the threatened closure of Rover's Longbridge plant, Britain's biggest factory, had hit the party hard in key marginal seats in the West Midlands.

Labour was also expected to come a poor third in the Romsey by-election, with the Conservatives and Lib Dems in a close-run contest. But it was the likely election of Mr Livingstone that was set to most irritate Downing Street, particular- ly as the post of London mayor was created by Mr Blair.

Snapshot results leaked to The Independent showed that Mr Livingstone was well on course to become Britain's first directly elected mayor. While Frank Dobson, Labour's candidate, may struggle to come in third place.

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