It is an open secret that Tony Blair would like to see elected mayors in all British cities. After Thursday's lamentable turnouts in London and elsewhere, he will be even more convinced that local government needs substantial reform. Bringing personalities into local politics is seen by the architects of local government policy as the key to boosting public interest in town halls.
At this level, the Prime Minister has already been proved correct. The developing contest, and the names involved or mentioned, such as Jeffrey Archer, Ken Livingstone and Chris Patten, has captured public interest. For the first time in history, nationally known politicians are queuing up to get elected to local government. Hitherto, local councils have been seen as a kindergarten for the sixth form that is Parliament.
Sadly for Tony Blair, this success in promoting the notion of a London mayor has galvanised Ken Livingstone back into prominence After years of lurking in the gloomiest backwaters of Labour's backbenches, the out- with-a-bang final leader of the Greater London Council has been fired back into the capital's politics. Worse, Livingstone is popular with voters of every party.
It is worth putting Ken's popularity in context. In the early days of the old-style "new" Labour administration at County Hall, Livingstone was not loved. The ejection of Labour's moderate leader Andrew McIntosh within 24 hours of the party's 1981 election victory, high-profile grants to minority organisations, and reported meetings with Sinn Fein between them led the tabloids to pour odium on the left-wing leader of the GLC. Even Michael Foot was discomforted by the Livingstone regime.
It took Mrs Thatcher to restore Ken Livingstone's popularity. Her random and ill thought-through decision to abolish the GLC reversed its leader's popularity slump. Once the government had decided to scrap the GLC, Livingstone and his colleagues ran an expensive and highly effective campaign to save themselves. By the time the lights were finally snuffed out in March 1986, Ken had achieved a kind of martyr status. Subsequently he has enjoyed, along with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, the popularity associated with a tragic early demise.
It is the popular Livingstone the electorate now remembers. Ken's fight for the "Fares Fair" policy is still revered by people who have long forgotten the grotty state of the Tube in the early 1980s. The Ratepayers' Iolanthe, the Metropolitan Mikado, the giant birthday cake on the South Bank and other excursions into popular culture are remembered fondly by the same local taxpayers who had previously cursed the rates hike introduced by the GLC in 1981.
Having swept away what was, by common consent, a weak and often ineffective London-wide authority, the Tories left a void which is being filled by the creation of one of the most powerful city governments in Europe, headed by an elected executive with a massive personal mandate. Londoners must contemplate the kind of person they really want running their transport, police, fire service, regeneration and strategic planning.
Livingstone and his chief Conservative rival Jeffrey Archer have put together a creditable double-act in recent weeks, appearing in television studios, radio interviews and conferences virtually every day, much to the annoyance of their respective high commands.
Mercifully for Mr Blair and Mr Hague, Ken and Jeffrey have generally been significantly less popular than Richard Branson. Londoners, doubtless in common with most of the rest of the British population, have also told pollsters they would prefer an independent candidate as a mayor. Branson has long been singled out as the most plausible non-political candidate.
But he has also made it clear he is most unlikely to stand. Business interests and ballooning appear to be sufficient to keep the Virgin chief occupied for 18 hours a day. Running London might just prove too much. This leaves the sixty-four thousand dollar question about who could come forward as a credible independent candidate and stop the party hacks.
For sixty-four thousand dollars read three million pounds. For it is likely to cost a sum of this order to run a plausible campaign across London. This would work out at 60p per voter. Five million pounds might be the more likely cost. It is just possible the big parties could come up with this amount of money (or sufficient voluntary help to cut the cost to a couple of millions). But it is very difficult to see how a genuine independent other than Mr Branson could do so.
Perhaps he and other philanthropic businesspeople can be convinced that they should contribute large sums to a fund to support a decent independent candidate. To avoid accusations that the City was "buying" the mayor, it would be necessary to have a number of different, pooled, sources and to insulate the money from its donors.
If such a trust could be created, who might the independent candidate be? Thus far, the ex-City Corporation leader Michael Cassidy has been most effective at seeking an independent status in the race, diligently appearing on television programmes, taking part in debates and generally getting about. But it would take a huge amount of exposure by a relatively unknown independent to break through to similar levels of recognition to those enjoyed by, say, Glenda Jackson, Chris Patten or the Livingstone/ Archer axis.
The public says it wants an independent mayor. Yet focus groups suggest that unknowns would be unlikely to stand a chance against high-profile politicians. This leaves London searching around for non-Branson celebrities such as Michael Caine, Claire Rayner and Maureen Lipman. But many celebrities fail the "have they ever run anything?" test. Ministers, ex-ministers, town hall bosses, business people, even editors, can claim to have run organisations. Perhaps it is from among the non-political of this group that London should search for independents to seek to be mayor of their city.
Simon Jenkins, the columnist who has devoted much attention to London's problems, would almost certainly garner considerable media support, essential for an independent candidate. Heather Rabbatts, chief executive of Lambeth, has been discussed as a possible candidate. Anyone who could bring a modicum of sanity to that borough would surely be well placed to run London as a whole. Greg Dyke, formerly of LWT and now at Pearson, has also been mentioned (possibly as a Labour candidate). John D Bird, founder of the Big Issue magazine has also said he would be interested.
Beyond this group lie people who have not been considered but who also make it on to a list of the kind of people who fulfil the criteria of being interested in London, politically independent and of having run something. For example, the journalist Andrew Neil has maintained an interest in London government, as has Sir Bob Reid, formerly of British Rail. Sir Colin Marshall of British Airways has recently been appointed chairman of the new London Development Partnership. Judith Mayhew, Michael Cassidy's successor as leader of the City Corporation, could step from her non-political role there into wider London politics. Sir Paul Condon could step down from being Metropolitan Police Commissioner to run an independent campaign to be mayor.
If all else fails in the search for a visible, well-funded independent it is just possible that the parties can be persuaded to choose the more independent-looking of their own front-runners. Labour's Trevor Phillips has no political baggage and comes as close as the party could get to a candidate outside the party machine. The Conservative Steven Norris has liberal credentials (useful for a Tory in London) and enjoys working with people from other parties.
Other cities in Britain may soon have to go through this process. It is increasingly likely that the Government will decide to impose mayoral systems, or something similar, in most or all of British cities. A debate is already under way in Glasgow, and will surely take place in Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds in the months ahead. Mayors of themselves cannot save local democracy, Indeed the "wrong" mayor - Chicago's infamous Mayor Daley springs to mind - could damage the experiment early on in its life. An old-fashioned, ideological and incompetent mayor with wide powers over a city's services could be very dangerous indeed. But an effective high-profile civic leader could do wonders for the ailing turnouts and collapsed public interest that now characterise local government. The election of London's mayor matters for people throughout Britain.
Tony Travers is director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics.