- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2000

LONDON Prime Minister Tony Blair's bold plan to give London its own chief executive is threatening to explode in his face and possibly tear apart his Labor Party.

Party members in London will choose their candidate for mayor when mail-in ballots are counted Wednesday, with Ken "Red" Livingstone the candidate Mr. Blair sees as a loony lightweight and tried to stop at all costs emerging as the favorite.

Mr. Blair's idea of establishing a mayoralty for London and a blueprint for other British cities to follow has degenerated into a political farce worthy of Monty Python or Benny Hill.

In both the Labor and Conservative party camps, the race has been bogged down by intrigue, infighting and sleaze, and a merry-go-round of potential candidates have been bumped off in each party for one reason or another.

On the Tory side, multimillionaire novelist Jeffrey Archer pulled out in disgrace after it emerged that he had asked a friend to lie in court to cover up payments by Mr. Archer to a prostitute.

His replacement, Steven Norris, says his wild days are over after going through five mistresses while married and fathering a child out of wedlock.

But this week the joke appears to be on Mr. Blair and his Labor Party.

Mr. Livingstone is a radical member of Parliament from what critics once dismissed as the "loony left," a group that gives Mr. Blair and New Labor a bad case of heartburn.

As the leader of the Greater London Council, he infuriated former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by slashing bus and subway fares, negotiating with Sinn Fein and recognizing homosexual rights, among other things.

He now plans to give jobs to four veteran left-wingers whom new Labor regards as beyond the pale, and recently told a magazine about his sympathy for rioters who protested against the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle last summer.

"Blair was so confident of his standing among the party, and in the transformation of the Labor Party, that he didn't envision people would not go along with his vision," said Allan Cochrane, a professor of local and regional government at the Open University.

Now, despite or more likely because of the government's heavy-handed campaign against him, Mr. Livingstone is ahead of the leadership's chosen son, Frank Dobson, in opinion polls.

Mr. Dobson, the jolly white-bearded former health secretary, could still win the nomination because of overwhelming backing from members of Parliament who have one-third of the votes in Labor's selection process (trade unions and party members share the rest).

But in that case, Mr. Livingstone has hinted he may run as an independent, a move that could tear apart the party.

"If Ken is the chosen candidate, it'll be very awkward for Blair," said political commentator Peter Kellner. "And if Dobson wins and Ken runs as an independent, it will be very messy."

Granting Londoners the right to elect their mayor is part of new Labor's program of decentralization and conferring more power on the people, which started with the creation of parliaments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

London, with 8 million citizens, has been one of the few capitals in the world without its own central administration since Mrs. Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council in 1986.

Instead the city has been run jointly by 32 local borough councils and the national government with mixed results.

Mr. Blair had hoped that selecting a leader through direct election would regenerate interest in local politics and provide Londoners with an identifiable figure who would be accountable and stand up for them.

But if they had a clear idea of the type of person they wanted, both parties were ill-prepared for a political contest in which, for the first time, personality has played a bigger role than party voting habits.

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