Bringing Ken Livingstone back would be just another New Labour fix

Maybe his re-admission will be forced through. But if so it will be realpolitik, not principle, which will have ruled the day
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The Independent Online

What a heartwarming Christmas pantomime it would make, this distinctively New Labour version of Dick Whittington. The wicked wizard of Brent, aka Ken Livingstone, is expelled by his party as a treacherous wrecker. But then he is elected Mayor of London, becoming so successful and popular that he is quite forgiven for all his past crimes by his former enemies. In a rousing finale at No 10, he is welcomed back to the party by Tony Blair, who four years ago was touring Labour meetings warning of the pestilences that would be visited on London if he became the mayor. The wizard, now the Labour candidate, is triumphantly elected by a grateful populace for a second term, and everyone, but especially Blair and Livingstone, lives happily ever after.

This more or less summarises the plot now being envisaged in upper reaches of the Government for the rehabilitation of Livingstone. To understand it, you must first understand the importance - symbolic and actual - of 10 June 2004 in the British political calendar. The combination, on a single day, of the European Parliament elections with those for English local councils, the London mayoralty and the London Assembly make it the nearest equivalent to US mid-term elections, a platform for the winners to build on in the crucial months that follow. And the elections in London are certain to be the most high profile of all.

For Michael Howard's new leadership of the Tory party, the glittering prize would be a victory - or at least a highly respectable second place - for Steve Norris, coupled with decisive control of the London Assembly. For the Liberal Democrats it would be to see Simon Hughes triumphantly beating Norris into third place. And for Labour it presents, according to some party analysts, the unpalatable possibility of an ignominious fourth place for its candidate, Nicky Gavron, who was selected by a combination of union and member power in the London Labour Party precisely because she was less likely to beat Livingstone than Tony Banks, a more experienced and better known rival. It's easy, therefore, to see the attractions for the Labour leadership of bringing Livingstone back. Labour could not only hope to bask in a Livingstone victory; it could also start to assert "ownership" of some of the very successes of Livingstone's mayoralty which the party might well have not been brave enough to embark on if it had been in charge. Congestion charges are the obvious example.

But Livingstone has also improved bus services; and he has been creative in using his planning powers to persuade developers to provide bonuses of social housing and other public goods in return for allowing them to build pretty well as high as they like, as well as for pleasing business - though not the environmental lobby - by backing controversial road schemes such as the East Thames bridge. And he has clearly not disgraced the office of mayor, as his critics predicted he might do. For Livingstone himself, the attractions are less immediately apparent. He is said to be anxious to have the party machine behind his campaign. But a poll he has commissioned from MORI suggests that he would win either way. His own and Norris's standing in the current 40-27-16-12 percentage distribution between himself, Norris, Hughes and Gavron would increase if he was back in the Labour Party - but the gap would stay the same.

There are lot of variables, including Norris's directorship of the highly controversial railway maintenance company Jarvis, but Livingstone's putative membership of the Labour Party isn't necessarily one of them. Indeed Professor Tony Travers, the author of a new book The Politics of London, suggests that he is, if anything, being electorally "brave" by wanting to go back into Labour because if a post-Hutton, Howard bounce starts to damage Labour Livingstone, as the official candidate, could be damaged with it.

So why does he want to return? His enemies - and he still has many, by no means confined to the party's right - claim he is thinking ahead to a political career after a second mayoral term and may not even have altogether given up hopes of leading the Labour Party one day.

Even if he no longer dreams of being leader, it is hard to see where he goes outside the party which made him. More practically, he may also judge that persuading his old adversary Gordon Brown to close the alarming funding gap confronting Transport for London will be easier inside the tent than outside it.

None of which alters the fact that the notion of re-admitting Livingstone has divided London Labour MPs. For a start, the initial signs are that Gavron, who really wants to be deputy mayor, is showing a certain steeliness in her talks with the party chairman Ian McCartney in resisting the idea of standing aside. And one can only speculate about the feelings of Frank Dobson, whom he defeated amid bitter acrimony in 2000. Or of Banks,the man who first proposed a London mayoralty and who spent some £18,000 of his own money in an abortive campaign after being leant on by senior party figures to seek the Labour nomination this time round, only to be defeated by the wealthy Ms Gavron as the London party fell under the Livingstone spell.

Might he be tempted to stand yet again in the fresh ballot that natural justice would require if Livingstone came back to the party? And there are other MPs fearful that the re-admission of Livingstone, who after all stood against an official Labour candidate, will lead to a flood of competing claims by other expellees. Nor is the party unanimous in its acclaim for the Livingstone mayoralty. Maybe the Government - and Brown in particular - was pig headed in insisting on the controversial PPP for the Tube. But did it really help despairing commuters for Livingstone to hold up improvements for so long by recourse to the law?

But that isn't really the point. The real loss will be to politics itself. Having used an undemocratic mechanism to ensure Livingstone was not the candidate, the party would now be using an even more undemocratic one to ensure he is. It will look - correctly - like a fix. And control freakery will be back in business.

Eloquently arguing for Livingstone's re-admission this week, Chris Smith said that the "progressive vote" would be split if Gavron and Livingstone both stood. Under the preferential vote system that isn't the case. But even if it were, Smith's claim that Mr Hughes, a possible beneficiary who has a formidable liberal record in London, doesn't count as "progressive" is highly doubtful. If Blair, with a huge parliamentary majority, is so frightened of an unpredictable election in London, then he is abandoning much of the pluralist and devolving aspirations that were supposed to have spawned the idea of the mayoralty in the first place. Maybe Livingstone's re-admission will be forced through. But if so it will be party realpolitik, not principle, which will have ruled the day.