Cheeky chappie, sexy Steve, glum Glenda

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Lany years ago I was talking to Anthony Lester QC, the human rights lawyer, and congratulating him on the selection system for parliamentary candidates adopted by the new SDP, where he was a great personage. He had not by then been made a lord and was keen to contest the Lewisham East constituency. His party favoured selection by one member, one vote.

Lord Lester replied that, while my approval of the system was gratifying, it did not suit his political ambitions one bit. For his opponent for the nomination was Ms Polly Toynbee. While a few people in the universities and at the Bar had heard of him, a great number in South London had heard of Ms Toynbee. They could hardly help it, as she was scarcely ever off the airwaves, expressing decided opinions on a variety of subjects. In any contest conducted on these lines, Lord Lester continued, the inevitable winner would be the candidate who was the best known. So it turned out. Ms Toynbee duly won the nomination though she failed to win the seat.

The contest for mayor of London is an extreme version of the case. To put it at its simplest: the politicians have lost control. To adopt a phrase of the late Professor Michael Oakeshott, they are in a boat without chart or compass.

I was present at the birth of the new idea. It was on Question Time in May 1990. The midwife was Mr Michael Heseltine. I remember him saying also on that occasion - it seemed a more notable observation at the time - that he would not challenge Margaret Thatcher this side of the election.

Anyway, the idea of having a mayor of London and possibly of other large cities as well was taken up by Mr Tony Blair after 1994. He was never a great advocate of devolution. That was more John Smith's project. Mr Blair was keener on mayors, even though they brought about similar problems of political organisation and control.

In one sense we have always had mayors. Some villages in Wales used to elect the biggest boozer in the district as an unofficial mayor, a lord of misrule. In more respectable circles of local government we have long had mayors too. Lord Hattersley's mother, a stalwart of the People's Party, was Mayor of Sheffield. Since medieval times the City of London has had a Lord Mayor who now exercises largely ceremonial functions.

London itself had a London County Council which did not have a mayor but a leader, of whom the most powerful were Peter Mandelson's maternal grandfather, Herbert Morrison, and the Welshman Ike Hayward, who is commemorated in the hideous art gallery of that name. But the Conservatives became tired of a body which possessed a seemingly inbuilt Labour majority. So in 1963, before the Thatcher Terror, the Greater London Council was set up.

The child proved a grievous disappointment to its originally doting parents. It would not do as it was told. It was highly unpredictable in its habits. The outer suburbs refused to return Conservative members consistently, as they had been fully expected to do. In 1981 Mr Ken Livingstone became leader, following a post-election coup against Mr Andrew (now Lord) McIntosh. Later, at the high tide of Thatcherism, Mr Livingstone was still there.

The Conservatives decided to demonise him. They had done it successfully before to numerous figures: John Strachey, Aneurin Bevan, Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, Bernie Grant. With Mr Livingstone, however, the treatment failed to work. The more viciously he was attacked, the more widely did he grin. He became popular not only with Labour supporters but also with Londoners. He was a bit of a character, a card. There is, after all, a long metropolitan tradition of the cheeky chappie: Tommy Trinder, Champagne Charlie, Burlington Bertie from Bow. Mr Livingstone belongs to the old English music hall. Besides, he introduced cheaper fares.

The situation was clearly intolerable. If Lady Thatcher could not abolish Mr Livingstone, as unfortunately she could not, she could at least abolish his council. This she proceeded to do, using Lord Baker as her catspaw. She even refused to sell the premises, County Hall, to the London School of Economics, preferring typically to hand them over instead at a knock- down price to a collection of Japanese financiers. The action was both vindictive and destructive. It was possibly unconstitutional as well. Unfortunately it was never properly tested in the courts.

Mr Blair is not giving us back the GLC or even the old LCC. He is giving us a new authority and a mayor, both separately elected, both with fewer and weaker powers than were exercised by the older bodies. It is entirely possible that the mayor and the majority in the new authority should represent different parties. It may even be desirable. Indeed, there is no reason why the mayor should represent any party at all. He or she is intended to be the figure at the prow of the ship.

Mr William Hague has chosen to take no (or very little) part in the process of selecting a candidate. He is accordingly portrayed as a pathetic weakling. Mr Blair, by contrast, has decided to take only too keen an interest. He is depicted, usually in the same article, as a brutal dictator. Commentators cannot be allowed to have it both ways even if, as Kenneth Tynan once remarked, you can have it 57 different ways if you try. But politics is not a rational trade. It never has been. What counts is the general impression. Both parties, for different - for opposing - reasons, have given the impression of malignity, muddle and incompetence.

Mr Steven Norris will presumably now win the Conservative nomination to satisfaction all round, except in the Conservative Association of one of his former constituencies, Epping Forest. He is as affable as Mr Livingstone and is, arguably, even better equipped for the post, having been minister for transport in London in a Conservative government.

By now, it should be clear to Mr Blair and the Central Committee that, if Mr Livingstone is not chosen, the success of neither Mr Frank Dobson nor Ms Glenda Jackson can be guaranteed. True, they do not much care what might happen to Ms Jackson. They do care about Mr Dobson. He is the officially approved party candidate. He is so because nobody else could be found.

This is the most surprising aspect of the contest so far. One does not expect Nobel prizewinners to put themselves forward. But one might have thought that two or three men or women of parts could have been persuaded to place their names before the public. Alternatively, or additionally, a few people who are famous for being famous might have been prepared to enter the contest for the publicity, if for no other reason. Thus far, the only person in this category to put his name forward is Mr Malcom McLaren.

Ms Jackson embraces both categories. She was both famous and an excellent actress. Unfortunately she disliked her job; rather as Richard Burton did. But alas, she does not seem to like her new work much more. I commend the advice of the 1940s song: "Powder your face with sunshine, put on a great big smile." Still, she has behaved with dignity throughout, as also has the Liberal Democrat candidate, Ms Susan Kramer. I do not expect Ms Jackson to win the Labour nomination. If Mr Dobson rather than Mr Livingstone wins it instead, I shall be voting for Ms Kramer, with Mr Norris as my second choice. Others will do likewise.

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