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Crikey’s Westminster correspondent has leapt back into action for an insightful piece on the election of “Red Ken” Livingstone as Mayor of London in the biggest setback Tony Blair has suffered since becoming PM.

“Red” Ken’s win was hardly a shock, although a glitch in the new computer system that should have brought a result at 6 AM meant the formal announcement was delayed until midday, but by then the champagne was already flowing in the Ken4London camp.

His campaign workers spent that Friday driving the big purple campaign bus backward and forward along Millbank past the Labour offices, and, allegedly, flipping the finger. And before you ask, nobody bared their arse out the window – that only happens on Contiki tours.

Labour did all it could to stop Ken from resuming as London’s leader – he ran the Greater London Council 14 years ago before Margaret Thatcher decided to put a stop to all the socialist silliness.

First, the leadership changed the rules so the party’s candidate would be picked via an electoral college, thereby stopping a ballot of individual members, and giving a chosen few in the trades unions and parliamentary party the right to use the block vote – so long as it went to stop Ken.

That worked, and Frank Dobson became Labour’s official man. But it became obvious Ken wasn’t going to play ball.

Then the party reminded him he signed up to a manifesto before the last general election which included a commitment to partial privatisation of London’s underfunded and inefficient underground train network, the main issue of the mayoral campaign.

This still didn’t work and Ken promptly told them to shove it and ran on his own.

It was the drover’s dog election. With an enormous lead in the polls, Ken would win as long as he kept his mouth shut – and he did. There was not a policy to be heard and Labour tried everything to discredit him.

When a May Day rally turned into a riot, including defacing a statue of Churchill and the Cenotaph war memorial, which was surrounded in wreaths from an Anzac service only days earlier, Ken was blamed because he’s not exactly a fan of capitalism!!

On the day of the election, Tony Blair took himself off to Northern Ireland to restart the peace talks for the umpteenth time. One wag in the Lobby suggested he could be the first man to go to Belfast and seek political asylum.

It was a bad day for Labour all round. The party lost almost 600 local councillors to the Tories, and in a parliamentary by-election its candidate did so badly he lost his deposit.

Blair expected the local council result and grudgingly accepted the mayoral debacle, but looked like he was ready to chew broken glass.

A few days later he came out fighting. He made a big speech saying the government takes a long view on its policies and is prepared to make unpopular decisions.

The forces of cynicism are at work, he told us. Believe in what we are doing, he pleaded. We are tough, he warned. Please vote for us next time, he should have said.

London is a now a “devolved matter”, the Downing Street spinners say. They make it sound like a breakaway country. Expect UN peacekeepers to arrive at any time.

Blair was basically saying to his old left troublemakers on the backbenches: “Don’t piss about with me, that bastard may be mayor of London, but he’s got bugger-all power. I’m still the boss, and I’ll still be the boss after the next election.”

The political jostling post-election has been hilarious. The Labour crowd sulked in their room like they’d just had their Paddle-pops taken off them and wouldn’t come out to play for a couple of days.

The Liberal Democrats turned down the job of running the fire service, because they supposedly weren’t interested. This was a bit churlish, given London has burnt crisper than a steak cooked by my mum on the barbeque once before and the London Fire Brigade is not exactly a small outfit.

The Green Party got, yep, you guessed it, the environment portfolio, so they’re as happy as Jeff Kennett in an art gallery with no security, and they get to hug all the trees.

Labour warned Ken on the underground issue and said none of its team would take any job unless he backed down from a confrontation with the government on the issue.

Being no fool, Livingstone simply decided to appoint an independent panel to look into the matter, knowing Labour would have to eat crow and accept because Dobson promised to do exactly the same thing if elected.

Sure enough, tail between legs, Labour’s Nicky Gavron quickly grabbed the role as deputy mayor.

The underground issue is the one thing that unites Londoners. Everyone, apart from the tourists, knows it’s crap in comparison with its counterparts in the rest of Europe and the U.S and needs urgent repair.

It’s also the one thing that vexes political parties. The Conservatives just can’t help themselves. Selling off bits of the public sector is like a drug habit – a short term hit with no long term gain, and someone else ends up with the profits.

Labour spent so long opposing privatisation everyone believed them, but they too have had a little snort and found they quite like offloading things, but they prefer a joint venture, known as a public/private partnership or PPP – a kind of “privatisation lite”.

Livingstone himself is in favour of a public bond issue that keeps the underground in the government’s hands. This sort of leftist policy does not go down well with the mineral-water drinking crowd that run the old workers’ party.

Will Blair suffer as a result of all this? Basically, no. The Conservatives are still an unelectable bunch of foreigner-hating ratbags with a front bench that looks like the net result of a “care in the community” mental health programme.

The prime minister knows he’s been in a fight, been given a bloody nose and a fat lip, but is already plotting his course for the next election, due probably in the spring on 2001.

He’ll be taking note of what happened on May 4 makes sure those mistakes aren’t repeated. The “New” Labour Party won’t screw up a 180 odd seat majority, and local setbacks are always expected mid-term by sitting administrations.

A bigger worry could be getting people out to vote. At least 66 per cent of Londoners couldn’t be bothered to front for the mayoral gig. Tony Blair’s next problem isn’t Ken Livingstone; it’s complacency among his core vote.

Peter Fray

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