Why I'm challenging my party to let me stand for mayor

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The Independent Online
SETTING UP a new government for London should have been nothing but good news for Tony Blair's administration. After 13 years as the only capital city in the western world without a democratically elected government, giving Londoners back the chance to elect and to sack the people running their city was so obviously the right thing to do that in the end the Tories went along with it - even though they had to lock Mrs Thatcher in the cellar whilst doing so.

But while the government is doing the right thing, some of Labour's faceless bureaucrats seem intent on screwing it up by getting involved in a pointless row about who should be Labour's candidate. No doubt with this in mind, the London Labour Party membership at their annual conference last summer voted overwhelmingly that anybody who was nominated by 10 local Labour parties should be included on the final ballot form to choose our candidate. Since then the transport union TGWU has proposed a compromise based on this formula which would allow Labour to vet those candidates not achieving the 10 nomination quota. Instead of accepting this sensible compromise, Clare Short's famous people in the shadows have opted instead for a panel of party appointees to vet the candidates in private.

Anyone who doubts the neutrality of the party machine had all their worst suspicions confirmed last week when I published an open letter to Tony Blair giving a categorical undertaking that I would not use the mayoralty to undermine the government. Within hours London Labour Party press office had issued a statement denouncing my promise as a "publicity stunt" aimed at "duping party members" and in the nicest possible way dismissing me as a liar.

That is why yesterday I launched a campaign not to become mayor, but to allow London Labour Party members the right to choose who they wish as their candidate. At 7.30pm next Monday Jo Brand has agreed to chair the first rally of this campaign at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster.

The Millbank Tendency have spent months giving off-the-record briefings to journalists rubbishing my record as leader of the GLC. This is a bit odd given that virtually all the controversial policies that caused such a stir back in 1981 have now become mainstream Labour policy. It's not just the easy issues of pro-public transport priorities and democratic control of the police - the GLC's battle against discrimination was a major contribution in winning the hearts and minds of ordinary members. We now have over 100 women Labour MPs, a black senior Minister and openly gay Cabinet ministers.

Even our most controversial policy of beginning a dialogue with Sinn Fein is now seen to have been right. What a tragedy that Mrs Thatcher didn't follow our lead and save the thousand lives that were lost in the intervening years.

So far every survey has shown that I am the leading party political candidate in the polls. In the last poll I even overtook Richard Branson. Given that this election will take place in May 2000, in the mid-term of the government and after what may be a rather grim year economically, it would be madness not to let the members choose from amongst the strongest contenders. Simply because the Tories are currently lagging in the polls does not mean that we should take Londoners' votes for granted.

Nor am I merely the first choice of old Labour sentimentalists. Two weeks ago the Evening Standard reported a poll in which 500 company directors were asked to spontaneously name their preferred candidate for mayor. 19 per cent chose me with just 5 per cent each for Jeffrey Archer and Richard Branson. Other mayoral contenders lagged behind these poor percentages with just 1 or 2 per cent.

No one would have predicted at the height of the GLC that I would lead the field amongst business leaders, so what has changed - me or them? The blunt fact is that City bosses depend on a sound public transport system if London is to remain attractive as a site for business HQs. It is even more amazing to talk to these captains of industry and discover that many would be prepared to pay a voluntary levy if it was guaranteed to be spent on modernising the tube system.

Yesterday's full page advert in the Evening Standard was immediately denounced as an attempt to "bully" my way into the nomination with sinister implications about where the money was coming from. Well, I've spent all the Russian gold and the Libyan petro-dollars, so hopefully the advert will be paid for by the donations of ordinary Londoners who believe it is their right to decide who is mayor and nobody else's.