Labour Party split over the return of Livingstone

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Indy Politics

Ken Livingstone's political future is still "genuinely up in the air", despite his confident predictions that he could be reinstated in the Labour Party this week.

Supporters of the Mayor of London are convinced that Labour's National Executive Committee, which will meet on Tuesday, is ready to issue the party's most famous prodigal son with an invitation to come back because all is forgiven.

Without Mr Livingstone, the London Labour Party will be forced to put up a candidate to run against him in next year's mayoral election, with a strong probability of that person ending in a humiliating fourth place. Nicky Gavron, the designated candidate, announced last week that she would rather run as Mr Livingstone's deputy.

But he still has powerful enemies in the Labour leadership, notably the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who would rather risk defeat in the mayoral election than have him back.

Michael Cashman, the former EastEnders star who is now a leading member of Labour's National Executive, has written to every Labour MP and MEP explaining why he intends to vote against re-admitting Mr Livingstone if the proposal is raised.The parliamentarians' responses to him indicated that they backed his position by a majority of about two to one, he said.

"The upholding of party rules is not just a London issue, it's a UK-wide issue," he said. "It's not something personal against Mr Livingstone, but if we break the rules for Ken, we set a very dangerous precedent.

"Apart from making it appear that Livingstone is above the rules, how do I square this with other people who were expelled from the party under the same rules?"

Mark Seddon, another member of the NEC, agreed that it would be unfair to give Mr Livingstone special treatment, but said he would vote for his readmission anyway. "There are thousands who have ripped up their cards in disgust at the Iraq war or other issues. I think we should have them all back," Mr Seddon said.

Officially, Mr Livingstone's future is not on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting, which has been called to appoint a new general secretary. But party officials say the agenda can be altered at the last minute, if Tony Blair and other party office holders want.

Aides travelling with the Prime Minister in Brussels said that he had not made up his mind whether he wanted Mr Livingstone back in the party.

Clive Soley, who played a key role in barring Mr Livingstone from standing as a Labour candidate in 2000, has now, reluctantly, joined those who are calling for his readmission. Without Mr Livingstone, Mr Soley and others fear that Labour will be soundly beaten in the London mayoral election, and that this could undermine the party's chances in elections for seats in the Greater London Assembly and the European Parliament.

"We have to bite on the bullet and let him back in, although it sticks in the throat a bit," Mr Soley said.

"It's partly about getting our party activists to come out and work in the election, because party morale in London is low, and a majority of the London members are in favour of him re-entering. It's also about getting voters to focus on voting Labour in the mayoral, Greater London Assembly and European elections."

As chairman of the parliamentary Labour Party, Mr Soley handled negotiations with Mr Livingstone four years ago, over whether he was going to be allowed to put his name forward as a possible Labour candidate.

Several of those known to have been opposed to Mr Livingstone's readmission have hinted that they are not going to put up a fight even though they have not changed their minds. Gordon Brown said last week that the decision should be left to the NEC. The Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, who opposed Mr Livingstone's readmission when he was party chairman, has indicted that he does not want to intervene this time.

Mr Livingstone was automatically expelled for a minimum of five years when he ran against the official candidate, Frank Dobson. His campaign for reinstatement was strengthened by Ms Gavron's offer to pull out and run as his deputy. But sticklers for the rule book will point out that even if Ms Gavron pulls out, the former sports minister Tony Banks has a stronger claim under party rules as the runner-up in the contest to select a candidate.

Mr Banks said: "I really don't want to talk about bloody Ken Livingstone. I just frankly don't want to talk about him. Sorry."