All No 10's Spin Fails to Blow Away Ken

By Watkins, Alan | The Independent (London, England), November 21, 1999 | Go to article overview
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All No 10's Spin Fails to Blow Away Ken


Watkins, Alan, The Independent (London, England)


ll governments attract myths which are unrelated to what is going on - even, sometimes, its direct opposite. An example of the latter is this Government's public relations. We are, so we are constantly told, being spun out of our minds. It is all done with smoke and mirrors and one of Mr Alastair Campbell's young ladies in fishnet stockings and something with little stars on it. The props are all there. But somehow the performance is reminiscent less of Houdini than of the late Tommy Cooper.

"Ladies and gentlemen", Mr Campbell or one of his young assistants proclaims, "kindly observe how, without moving my hands, I prevent Mr Ken Livingstone from becoming mayor of London." There is a flash of sparks, a puff of smoke, an acrid smell wafting over the front rows of the stalls. The lights go on and Mr Livingstone is still on the stage, grinning like a Cheshire Cat that has enjoyed an unusually good lunch. At this point Mr Campbell removes his fez and scratches his head.

In fact he seems to have kept a safe distance from the comic events of last week. Instead he, or somebody, appears to be blaming the women, Ms Margaret McDonagh of Millbank, the general secretary of the party, and Ms Sally Morgan, one of the spangled ones at No 10. Ms Morgan favoured Leninist tactics of simply eliminating Mr Livingstone at an early stage so that he could cause no more trouble to the Central Committee. Ms McDonagh, by contrast, believed - she presumably still believes - that Mr Frank Dobson could defeat Mr Livingstone in the electoral college.

Originally the nominating body had been intended to be the ordinary members in London. It soon became clear, as it had been really from the beginning, that if Mr Livingstone was allowed to stand he would beat all comers. The choice was therefore between prohibiting him from putting his name forward and changing the body that was going to be doing the selecting.

Mr Tony Blair's chums chose the latter course, duly and predictably lighting on an electoral college of one-third each for trade unions, for MPs and MEPs, and for ordinary members. This was what they had done in Wales when it turned out that, in a vote of members only, Mr Rhodri Morgan would beat No 10's nominee, Mr Alun Michael.

Another myth about New Labour, by the way, is that it is dedicated to the principle of one member, one vote. It is not. Mr Blair was elected in 1994 by a college identical to the one choosing the candidate for mayor of London: except that in 1994 trade unionists voted as individuals, as they did not in Mr Michael's election, and as they presumably will not vote either in the election for the mayoral candidate. Otherwise Mr Livingstone might still win, which would not do at all.

To choose the people to go forward sat a committee of workers, peasants and intellectuals, the most prominent of whom were Mr Clive Soley, a lugubrious Londoner, and Mr Ian McCartney, a pugnacious Glaswegian - is there any other sort? - whose father, Hugh McCartney, a Scottish parliamentary journalist, was very kind to me when I embarked on this trade many years ago. There is little doubt that the body was intended to wave Mr Livingstone through. Mr Soley and Mr McCartney claimed that, as one of them put it, he turned out to be his own worst enemy. It is not wholly clear whether his offence was to refuse to accept in advance the Labour manifesto (which, like many great works, is as yet unwritten) or, rather, to oppose the part-privatisation of the London underground.

This is yet another of those "private finance initiatives". What happens is that a public asset is handed over to a private firm (in this case Railtrack). It is then partly maintained and wholly guaranteed by public finance.

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