Blair's dirtiest fight so far

The Labour battle to select a candidate for the capital's top job has become a public relations disaster
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Indy Politics

ony Blair's plan was to end corruption in local government. Little did he imagine that the race to lead his flagship London authority would descend into murky skulduggery that would put many a town hall to shame. But it has. The battle to become Labour's candidate for mayor is one of the dirtiest political fights in recent memory.

ony Blair's plan was to end corruption in local government. Little did he imagine that the race to lead his flagship London authority would descend into murky skulduggery that would put many a town hall to shame. But it has. The battle to become Labour's candidate for mayor is one of the dirtiest political fights in recent memory.

On Tuesday, when a 12-strong selection panel announces the names that have made the official shortlist, Labour's top brass will attempt to move away from personalities to the more comfortable territory of policy.

As the three main candidates ­ Ken Livingstone, Glenda Jackson and Frank Dobson ­ line up to be judged by a jury of their peers, only the fourth, unknown candidate ­ Ken Baldry, a 56-year-old computer consultant from Islington ­ has escaped unscathed.

The bitter battle, fought in whispering campaigns behind closed doors and aired in the columns of newspapers, has been a disaster for the image-conscious Labour Party.

Since Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott first published the Bill to create a mayor and an assembly for London at the end of 1998, the process has descended into farce.

First there was the will-he-won't-he saga during which Frank Dobson insisted he would not be standing ­ right up until days before he announced his decision to stand. His running mate, the black broadcaster Trevor Phillips, spent one of the "won't" periods claiming that Ken Livingstone, the former leader of the Greater London Council, was "racist" for having the temerity to invite him to stand as his deputy ­ a role he was only too happy to take from Mr Dobson a few weeks later.

Minister for London Nick Raynsford, the Blair choice when Mr Dobson wasn't having any of it, decided to become Dobson's campaign manager. He is now understood to have forfeited this role after a "difficult" week.

Glenda Jacksonannounced she would run in July, when she stepped down as transport minister. The party hierarchy expected her to opt out to make way for Dobson, but she hasn't.

What has been abundantly clear in the past few weeks is the horror with which the Labour leadership contemplates a Livingstone mayoralty, and what it perceives would be a return to the "gesture politics" of his Greater London Council. The gloves came off for the "Stop Ken" whispering campaign ­ a campaign which seemed to be driven by Downing Street. There were reports, for instance, that an interview for BBC's Newsnight in which Mr Livingstone criticised the Blair Government, would be used as the "silver bullet" to end his candidature.

The events that unfolded after Frank Dobson was officially endorsed by the Prime Minister as his favoured candidate have not reflected well on New Labour ­ or Old.

The party announced that votes to select Labour's candidate would be cast in an electoral college: London MPs and MEPs would hold a third of the votes, the trade unions a third and ordinary members the final portion. Mr Livingstone's supporters immediately declared the system a "stitch-up".

Mr Dobson's campaign then became embroiled in a long-running saga over access to party lists. The team faced allegations that they were using a central list, giving them an unfair advantage over their rivals. Elizabeth France, the Data Protection Registrar, was soon involved, saying she would investigate claims of a possible breach of the Data Protection Act. Days later, Baroness Uddin, a member of the 12-strong selection panel, had to quit after openly criticising Mr Livingstone. The Labour Party was warned by the MSF union that it may mount a legal challenge over plans to stop its members voting, along with London members of the RMT, Aslef and the broadcasting union Bectu.

Mr Dobson was offered the services of PR guru to the stars, Matthew Freud. Mr Livingstone, described by one Labour insider as "not really a politician, more a media celebrity", did his own PR. He played the victim beautifully, he criticised the Government, stuck firm to his left-wing principles, only came to vote in the Commons against Mr Blair's welfare reforms ... and then produced a personal manifesto for the selection panel littered with New Labour language.

Begrudgingly, one insider said: "Ken's campaign is great for getting shortlisted or selected but it's a lousy position from which to do the job."

The question remains of what to do about Mr Livingstone. The Labour Party has been split into several camps on the issue, from those who say that blocking the former GLC leader will lead to mass resignations of party members to those who want him to be allowed to run and take the consequences. Yesterday it looked as if Mr Blair was opting to allow Mr Livingstone to enter the contest, subject to imposing a manifesto on him and all other candidates.

Letting the MP for Brent East stand would be an enormous political gamble ­ he might win. Imposing a manifesto on him would limit the damage that he could wreak if he went on to be mayor. Going into a General Election with a Labour Mayor advocating a totally different manifesto from that of the Labour Government would be disastrous.

Equally disastrous for the morale of the party would be blocking Mr Livingstone. It could lead to the departure of party activists, which in turn could cause grave problems during the fights for marginal seats at forthcoming elections.

Next week the gloves will be off, with further attacks on Mr Livingstone likely, particularly over his criticisms of the Labour leadership. Until Labour can accept the fact that democracy and dissent go hand-in-hand, these rows can only get worse.

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