Labour is trying to forge an informal "Lib-Lab pact" to head off the prospect of a victory by the Tory candidate Boris Johnson over Ken Livingstone in the election for London mayor.
Senior Labour figures have told the Liberal Democrats they will have a better chance of achieving their long-standing goal of changing Britain's first-past-the-post voting system by urging their supporters to make Mr Livingstone their second choice. Londoners have two votes in the 1 May contest. If, as expected, no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the votes, second choices are taken into account. Opinion polls suggest they will prove decisive.
Gordon Brown is warming to the idea of electoral reform for the Commons, by adopting an alternative vote (AV) system. But Labour figures who support change are warning that it will be hard to make progress if the Liberal Democrats remain neutral in the race between Mr Livingstone and Mr Johnson.
Peter Hain, the former cabinet minister and a long-time supporter of AV, said: "The natural preference vote for Lib Dems in London is for Ken if they want to be part of the progressive London majority. This would strengthen the case of those who support it [AV]."
Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society, has written to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, and his eight London MPs, asking them to make Mr Livingstone their second choice, saying: "If London's Lib Dem MPs and other senior voices do not offer a lead, the likely outcome is that LibDem second preferences will divide equally enough to see Boris Johnson elected as Mayor by the back door." He then proposes a "progressive insurance policy" against a Tory win in which the MPs would urge Labour supporters to make Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat candidate, their second choice.
Mr Paddick refused to be drawn yesterday on how his backers should use their second vote. This is a dilemma for the Liberal Democrats, especially as Mr Livingstone and the Green Party candidate, Sian Berry, have already made such a pact.
Today Mr Johnson will highlight Mr Livingstone's "broken promises" during his two terms in office. "[Livingstone] is not a man of his word and has consistently promised to do one thing during an election only to not deliver it afterwards," the Tory candidate will say.
*Labour is so worried about the popular appeal of "Boris" that ministers have started a "swear box" into which they must put £5 when they refer to him by his first name alone. Tessa Jowell, the minister in charge of Labour's campaign in London, has urged the Cabinet to call him "Boris Johnson" or "the Tory candidate" to try to minimise the popular appeal of a man best known for his television appearances. "What we have is a situation where people think that this election is a joke and the future of London is not serious," she told Sky News.