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THE REASON contractors didn't go ballistic when they heard of London mayor Ken Livingstone describe them as 'the worst scum of modern British capitalism' is that they were probably expecting it.

Mr Livingstone says outrageous things all the time - that's what he's for, and that's why Londoners love him so much. (All right, it's that and the fact that, when he was the leader of the Greater London Council, he let them all travel on the tube for 20p. ) Since Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC, Mr Livingstone has traded on his popular image as a rampaging socialist revolutionary with an endearing penchant for newts.

The London mayoral election was the perfect stage for him.

And although he's always referred to as a politician, Red Ken is just as much an entertainer.He's a great speaker and when he stands up to address a crowd he soon has them eating out of his hand.

Despite the left-wing revolutionary label, Livingstone's not given to hysterical ranting: his style is more Jack Dee than Ben Elton and his low whining monotone voice makes his outrageous pronouncements seem urbane, witty, even believable.

Since being cast into the wilderness by Mrs Thatcher, Ken has been out of harm's way (by which I mean he couldn't inflict harm) for 14 years.Now he is mayor, he thinks he has power again, but his attack on the contractors was born out of frustration: he has no say in the part-privatisation of the tube at all.

If contractors like Mowlem (charged with the heinous crime of 'road-building', of which it is without doubt very guilty) smart at Red Ken's gross accusations, they should console themselves with the knowledge that their discomfort is probably far less than Tony Blair's.

Although Livingstone's attack is directed at the construction industry, it is New Labour' reelection prospects that risk being damaged most.