Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 10 March 2000

Hate campaigns in politics are always good fun for onlookers – and the Labour leadership’s assault on Ken Livingstone since he announced he would be running for London mayor as an independent is nothing if not hugely entertaining for most of the population. But in the long run it would make sense for New Labour to lay off the mud-slinging.

Of course, in Labour Party terms, Livingstone has done wrong. He has committed the cardinal sin of declaring that he will stand for elected office against the official Labour candidate – and to make matters worse he has done so after he promised he wouldn’t.

But – like it or not – the voters, and most of the Labour Party in London, think that he has been badly treated by the Labour machine and are minded to use the mayoral election to treat it a lesson. Everything suggests that he is going to win, and that Dobbo will have his day made by not getting the job he didn’t want in the first place.

Opinion polls might not always be accurate, but the 55 percentage point lead that the Guardian’s ICM poll gave Livingstone this week suggests that only a quite extraordinarily dynamic campaign could hope to stop him.

And, despite all the best efforts of the party machine, Dobbo’s campaign has all the momentum of a dead dog. Even if most Labour Party members in London decide not to jeopardise their membership by actively campaigning for Livingstone, hardly anyone is going to lift a finger for Labour’s official candidate. (And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a majority of party members vote for Livingstone.)

This means that, after the votes are counted on 4 May, it is likely that the Government is going to have to work with Livingstone as London mayor – and that Labour as a party is going to have to woo back vast numbers of Livingstone supporters, both activists and voters, before the next general election.

In this light, spending the next eight weeks slagging Livingstone off as a liar, an ego-maniac, a traitor, an extremist and worse is not, to put it mildly, very intelligent politics. It would be more sensible by far for the Labour machine to write off the London mayoral election as an inevitable defeat, run a gracious, low-key (and low-cost) non-campaign and then, as soon as possible after Livingstone wins, find a way of getting him back into the party fold.

There are historical precedents for this. Labour ran magisterial non-campaigns in several by-elections between 1992 and 1997 where the Liberal Democrats were the main challengers to the Tories, most memorably that in Newbury, which was masterminded by Peter Mandelson. And Labour has not always treated its prodigal sons and daughters by casting them into outer darkness for ever.

With all the talk from the Dobbo camp of Oswald Mosley, Ramsay MacDonald, the Gang of Four and Militant, it is easy to forget that many who have left Labour have returned and been forgiven their sins – among them such luminaries as Aneurin Bevan, Stafford Cripps, John Strachey, Jennie Lee and Fenner Brockway.

Given that Livingstone is not planning to set up a political party to rival Labour, has argued for supporters in the Labour Party to stay put and has advocated Dobbo as second preference, there is no good reason that he should not be back inside the party by the end of the year.

Reason has long since ceased to have anything to do with the mayoral race, however. “New” Labour appears to be bent on playing as dirty as possible, and hang the consequences. As things stand, it is no more likely that the party leadership will see the sense of damage-limitation than that Dobbo will be mayor on 4 May.

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