Ken tends to the toads as he plots his return to the New Labour fold

Livingstone feels as if he's never left, but there are some in Brighton, the Taliban Tendency, who vow to destroy him
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Indy Politics

When Labour's hordes descend on Brighton for their annual party conference today, Ken Livingstone will be in his back garden, doing what comes naturally.

When Labour's hordes descend on Brighton for their annual party conference today, Ken Livingstone will be in his back garden, doing what comes naturally.

Having dug and laid a new pond, the Mayor of London will be tending his newts, frogs and toads as both the Government and the nation's media decamp to the South Coast.

Unfortunately for those who believe that Mr Livingstone's interest in things amphibian has more to do with Macbeth than Johnny Morris, the garden in question will not be in the People's Republic of Brent but in Brighton itself.

The Mayor's second home on the sea is just a five-minute stroll from the conference centre, giving him the perfect base for his guerrilla raids on this year's get-together. "It saves every year on the hotel bill. We've offered a reduced rate to Gordon and Sarah for the spare bedroom. It's prudent, so he should be very tempted," he jokes, referring to the Chancellor and his new bride.

To the casual observer, it will be as if he had never been away. The Brent East MP has no less than four fringe events to attend, starting with a rally tomorrow for the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.

On Monday, he will speak at the Corn Exchange in The Independent's fringe meeting on "Winning Labour's Second Term". Later, he will address an RMT union meeting to oppose Tube privatisation and on Tuesday he will host the London Tourist Board and London First Centre's business reception.

And yet, following his expulsion for standing as an independent in the London mayoral race, this will be the first conference in 30 years at which Mr Livingstone has not been a member of the Labour Party. It is clear the idea hasn't fully sunk in. "When I wake up in the morning, I feel like I'm a member of the Labour Party. I still say 'we' when I talk about Labour - it's my government that got elected. I've never stopped being a member and that's the public perception too," he said.

"I can't tell you the number of times I've met government ministers since May who in some little way have shown how pleased they are with me. Usually, it's when their officials can't see and they use some sort of secret hand code.

"The fact is that I'm not being treated like any other Labour Party member. They're still cashing my standing orders to pay for the Labour agent in Brent East. They turned a complete blind eye to Labour supporters of mine working for me during the mayoral election. I spent a lot of time persuading Labour councillors not to resign and become independents."

It was exactly a year ago that the former GLC leader was doing the rounds at the Labour conference in Bournemouth, winning cheers from delegates during his debates with his potential rivals, Glenda Jackson and Trevor Phillips.

It was also exactly a year ago that Frank Dobson looked out over the Channel and made the fateful decision to challenge for the party's candidacy. Thanks to the backing of MPs and unions that failed to ballot their members, Mr Dobson squeaked home in Labour's contest. But Millbank's triumph proved to be a hollow one within a matter of months, when Londoners voted for an independent mayor and Mr Dobson trailed in fourth place behind the Tories and Liberal Democrats.

Today, Mr Livingstone is getting on with the job of running the capital. Having been confronted with a plan of his new home in the so-called "glass testicle" mayoral building near Tower Bridge, the Mayor has decided to halve his office space in favour of fellow workers. He's also working out where to stage the first People's Question Time. And London hasn't fallen into the abyss.

However, his biggest concern is London's Underground and the Government's plans for a part-privatisation of the network. A report on the merits of part-privatisation will be published tomorrow by the Industrial Society. Mr Livingstone hints that it will come out against the government scheme because it involves safety risks.

"What's starting to happen is it's unravelling on grounds of safety. When the last government looked at privatisation, it was unanimously rejected by the London Transport Board on safety grounds."

Yet, for Mr Livingstone, the whole idea of the part privatisation has the same root as Tony Blair's latest troubles on petrol, the Ecclestone affair and pensions: failing to listen to the public. "The recurrent theme of public opinion in recent weeks has been the arrogance of power of the Government. You've got a government whose candidate got 4 per cent of Londoners' votes," he said. "A lot of spin-doctors believe that the public are stupid. That's why the ballot rigging against me backfired so badly."

Yet, with a major campaign due to be launched at this year's conference for his readmission to Labour, he appears confident he will get his way.

"There's a small group of what the whips call the Taliban tendency whose view is 'never surrender' and 'we'll destroy him after the general election". They are a minority though.

"Which Labour MP is going to stand against me? Who wants this joyous role?" he asks. "I would be amazed if I wasn't Labour candidate for Mayor in four years' time."