Tsk! Tsk! Why Londoners Want to Slap Tony Blair

After the British prime minister tried to rig an election for the city's mayor, London voters look set to choose his sworn enemy.

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Democracy means listening to the voters, and that may prove to be a humiliating experience for Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, when Londoners go the polls Thursday to elect a mayor. Early in his term, Blair urged the revival of citywide government — dismantled by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 — proposing the new post of mayor and a 25-member assembly (the Lord Mayor of London is a ceremonial job centered on the financial district; local government is exercised in the city's 33 boroughs). That was the easy part.

Trouble started brewing for Blair last year when he sought to impose his own mayoral candidate over the choice of his party's membership — and he appears to have lost badly. When "Red" Ken Livingstone, a stalwart of the "loony left" that Blair vanquished in his rise to leadership of the Labor party, showed interest in the job, the prime minister was having none of it. Although the iconoclastic Livingstone, a longtime favorite of Londoners since the mid-80s, when he headed the Greater London Council — and so irritated Margaret Thatcher that she abolished the institution to get rid of him — won almost three quarters of the vote in the Labor party's primary, Blair fixed the selection process to ensure that his pick, former education secretary Frank Dobson, would get the nod. But that so enraged London Labor voters that they've flocked overwhelmingly to Livingstone's independent campaign. Going into Thursday's vote, Livingstone is the runaway favorite with some 49 percent in the polls, followed by Conservative party candidate Steven Norris with 16 percent and Blair's man, Dobson, a distant third with 12 percent.

"London Labor supporters are telling Blair to back off," says TIME London bureau chief Jef McAllister. "He rigged the rules to keep Livingstone out of the Labor nomination despite being the democratic choice of the party's membership, and the rank and file now look set to deliver Blair a painful message about democracy. And because it's a vote for a not particularly serious position, Labor supporters feel they can vote against the government without strengthening the hand of the Conservatives." Still, the slap-down has to sting Blair, who invested a considerable amount of his own political capital in a vain bid to shut out Livingstone. But that's the kind of adversity on which the insurgent Livingstone has always thrived, and Blair's efforts simply turned the election into a referendum on his efforts to override the choice of the Labor membership. "Livingstone's a great, colorful campaigner and is clearly out there having fun," says McAllister. "And Blair has inadvertently turned him into the major, if not the only, issue of the campaign, allowing him to dominate the media." Don't worry, Tony, Mrs. Thatcher feels your pain.