Livingstone puts jokers aside to end the battle

Ken tells Andrew Grice Londoners have not been fooled by his main rival

"Is it one of my franchises?" Ken Livingstone quipped as he headed for Ken's Cafe, next to West Ham's Upton Park ground. With the rain pouring down, he said: "We never had weather like this before Boris came in."

Boris Johnson may have got more laughs than Ken in their hustings debates. But without his younger rival alongside, it is easier to revert to the Cheeky Chappy who ran so many rings round Margaret Thatcher as leader of the Greater London Council that she abolished it.

Mr Livingstone has just unveiled a poster attacking Mr Johnson in his final pitch for votes in today's election: "Don't vote for a joke. Vote for London." His press minders told him to stand one side of the poster.

The posse of photographers beckoned him to the middle, trying to squeeze his face and the word "joke" into the same frame.

At times during the election Mr Livingstone has looked tired and all of his 62 years. He has recovered from a bad cold he picked up four weeks ago, but the cough has stubbornly remained. The worst part was before the six-week run-in, when in his eyes the campaign consisted of the London Evening Standard's relentless attacks on him. They have been led by Andrew Gilligan, a Boris supporter hired by Mr Johnson at The Spectator after he left the BBC. "It has been damaging," admitted Mr Livingstone. But he has been much happier in the campaign proper. "It's physically exhausting, but mentally very renewing," he said. "There is a good mood on the streets."

After eight years it is hard for Mr Livingstone to be the anti-establishment candidate. He insisted it would not be easier if he were still the independent who was elected as mayor in 2000, before returning to the Labour fold in 2004.

The polls show his ratings about 10 points above those of Labour and he doesn't think Gordon Brown's problems will drag him down. The vast majority of Londoners do not see the contest as a national referendum, he said. No one has raised the abolition of the 10p tax rate with him (although Labour canvassers tell a different story).

Over a bacon sandwich in Ken's Cafe, Mr Livingstone did not hide his frustration with his Tory opponent. At hustings debates, Mr Johnson has looked less comfortable than the Mayor on policy. But the worry for Mr Livingstone is that he may have failed to prevent the election being seen as a version of Celebrity Big Brother. He argued that his rival has conveniently forgotten what he wrote in 20 years as a right-wing journalist and has repackaged himself "as a sort of Ken lite". "If you go 'oops, cripes', shake your hair and say sorry, you can get away with anything. It worked in his private life. It seems to work in his public life. For people who loathe me, he is a convenient vehicle. For those who are quite happy with the way the city is going, there is a real fear he will roll it back."

Mr Livingstone doesn't do "sorry", but conceded he made "a mistake" by not bringing his defeated opponents into his administration after the 2004 election. He is serious about finding a role for Mr Johnson and Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in his team if he wins a third term. That would give Mr Johnson the experience to become "a better mayor at some point in the future".

Mr Livingstone rejected Bill Clinton's dictum that eight years is "what you get" in modern politics. "Clinton would have won a third term comfortably if the American people weren't denied that choice. It's best to allow Londoners to decide who they want," he said. "Tony Blair would tell you he spent his first four years learning how to do the job. That's a luxury we don't have."

It is hard to imagine London without him – "If you ask me to guess, I expect to win by 52 to 48 per cent," he smiled – but some of his aides are less confident.

The man and his manifesto

Age: 62

Experience: Leader, Greater London Council 1981-86; MP for Brent East 1987-2001; Mayor of London since 2000

USP: Red Ken

Key policies: Would continue 6 per cent reduction in crime each year, recruiting an extra 1,000 police officers; improve public transport; extend Freedom Pass, giving the elderly and disabled free travel before 9am and throughout the day; £25 a day charge for gas-guzzling vehicles entering congestion charge zone; 50 per cent of new homes to be affordable; £78m youth centres programme.

Campaign: Desperate to fight on policy.

Strengths: A strong champion for London; has experience and track record of bold policies.

Weaknesses: Vulnerable to "time-for-change" mood after eight years in power; allegations of arrogance and cronyism.

Second vote may be crucial in the race for London mayor

Voters will be able to vote for their first and second choice for mayor under the "supplementary vote" system. Ballot papers will allow voters to put a cross by their first choice candidate and their second choice, if they wish, although they do not have to give a second preference.

If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote when the first preferences are counted, the two candidates with the most votes go into a second round.

The rest of the candidates are eliminated and second preference votes for the two remaining contenders are added to their total. When all the second-choice votes have been added, the candidate with the highest number of votes is declared the winner.

It is widely expected that Ken Livingstone and his Tory challenger, Boris Johnson, will emerge as the two main contenders. This will make crucial the second preferences of people backing the Liberal Democrat candidate, Brian Paddick, and the Green candidate, Sian Berry.

Voters in London will also have two ballot papers for the London Assembly elections. One will elect local constituency members to the assembly on a first-past-the-post basis.

A third ballot paper will allow people to vote for assembly candidates from a London-wide party list. The ballot will allow voters to choose a party from the list of those fielding candidates. The winning parties will allocate seats based on their share of the vote.

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