Labour battles to curb Livingstone support

 

Downing Street cast Mr Frank Dobson as "the underdog" in the London mayoral contest yesterday, as the Labour high command battled frantically to check runaway support for Mr Ken Livingstone.

Labour backbenchers joined ministers in sustained criticism of Mr Livingstone's broken promise not to leave the party. The Employment Minister, Ms Tessa Jowell, repeated the charge that "he lied to Labour and he'll lie to London", while the Tottenham MP, Mr Bernie Grant, declared: "Livingstone's portrayal of himself as a man of principle with only the interest of Londoners at heart is testimony to his own vanity, and those who know him, as I do, will see this as a con and a fraud."

Twenty-four hours after he electrified the mayoral election with his decision to break with Labour, an ICM poll showed the left-wing MP stretching his lead to a massive 55 points over Mr Dobson.

The poll, conducted after his declaration on Monday, put support for Mr Livingstone at 68 per cent to just 13 per cent for Mr Dobson, with the Tory and Liberal Democrat candidates on 11 per cent and 6 per cent respectively.

Detailed analysis of the findings brought even worse news for Mr Dobson, suggesting that among those certain to vote support for the former GLC leader soars to 71 per cent with Mr Dobson on a derisory 11 per cent.

As he set about the business of establishing a campaign team and winning vital cash backing, Mr Livingstone himself predicted the final result on May 4th would be "very tight".

Reacting to the Guardian poll he said: "After you have had an opinion poll like this . . . there is no way to go but down. I am certain as the campaign rolls on it is actually going to be very tight. My expectation is that between Steve Norris, Frank Dobson and myself there is going to be very little in it on polling day."

Labour strategists will be praying that over an eight-week campaign - as the media focus shifts off the personality and procedural issues raised by Labour's controversial selection procedure, and on to policy - support for Mr Livingstone will begin to decline.

However, the respected political analyst Peter Kellner, writing in the Evening Standard last night, warned that under the two-stage voting system to elect London's mayor, Mr Livingstone could be virtually assured of victory if just 30 per cent of voters made him their first-preference candidate.

Repeating again that he hoped one day to return to Labour's ranks, and insisting that the Blair government would work with him, Mr Livingstone said: "I made it absolutely clear to anyone who votes for me, my advice is to cast your second vote for Frank Dobson because I don't want this row to lead to Steve Norris slipping in with the split Labour vote . . . Every Labour voter has got two votes. I think they should cast them for both Labour candidates, whether one of us is suspended or not."