Millbank blocks calls to let Ken rejoin party

Labour has postponed its London regional conference amid fears that activists will call for the reinstatement of Ken Livingstone as a party member.

With Mr Livingstone on course to win this Thursday's mayor of London election, Millbank officials have decided to delay the London Labour Party event to avoid negative publicity for Tony Blair, insiders claim.

The postponement emerged yesterday amid speculation that Frank Dobson, the official Labour candidate for mayor, would be rewarded for running with a Cabinet post if he lost the election.

The bi-annual London conference was due this spring, but has been rescheduled twice as activists gather motions demanding the former Greater London Council leader's restoration as a Labour member. The conference was pencilled in for September, but senior party figures were horrified by the threat of a PR disaster on the eve of the national Labour Party conference in Brighton.

With a general election likely in 2001, this autumn's conference will be Mr Blair's last before voters go to the polls and party managers are keen that it will be a showpiece event.

The London Labour Party conference has now been put off until late October at the earliest, although some insiders suspect it will not now be held at all before the general election. Millbank will want to avoid similar scenes to the last London conference in 1998, when activists passed a motion demanding Mr Livingstone be allowed on the mayoral selection ballot paper if he won nominations from local branches.

Mr Livingstone, who was expelled from the party in March for five years, repeated last week that he would apply to rejoin within days of him winning the mayoral election.

Geoff Martin, London convenor for Unison and a leading activist within the London Labour Party, said that members were furious at the whole mayoral selection process and many wanted Mr Livingstone re-admitted. "There has been a raft of motions around London to bring Ken back into the fold," Mr Martin said. "By shoving the conference off into the future, it's obvious they want to avoid real debate." He added that it was likely that many members would call for the removal of Jim Fitzpatrick, MP for Poplar and Canning Town, as chair of the London party for his role in the selection process.

But a London Labour Party spokesman said one reason for the delay had been the "practicalities" of booking a venue. "We are in the middle of an election period and all the people needed to set it up are involved in that," he said. "Then you've got the summer, when things close down for eight weeks. We're looking at a date around October after the party conference." A Millbank spokesman ruled out any early return to the party for Mr Livingstone, pointing out that by standing as an independent he had expelled himself automatically.

The Brent East MP yesterday dismissed as a "smear" claims that he was in danger of breaching spending limits with slick television and billboard advertisements for his campaign for mayor. Labour Party officials pledged to scrutinise expenses filed by the MP to see whether he has spent more than the limit of £420,000. But Mr Livingstone said he had given his campaign staff "clear instructions" not to spend more than £400,000 so that spending would be £20,000 under the limit. "We've set up a system at the bank where we can't pay out money that takes us over that limit. The campaign would automatically stop," he told ITV's Seven Days.

Meanwhile, Mr Dobson dismissed as "tittle tattle" stories that he was preparing to write his memoirs and attack Downing Street for getting him to stand for the mayoralty.