Tessa Jowell wants to close the gap between "two Londons". Photo: Getty
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Tessa Jowell: “My best way to spend a Sunday afternoon is talking to Tories”

The outgoing Labour MP for Dulwich and London mayoral contender speaks to Anoosh Chakelian about election strategy, immigration, and her plan to make “two Londons one”.

Tessa Jowell is tapping away at her phone, looking deeply concerned. She has just received the news that one of her campaigners was bitten by a dog while out knocking on doors. She calls to check up on him, pacing up and down her Commons office that looks over the grey Thames.

The challenges and pitfalls of canvassing are nothing new to Jowell. She has been an elected representative in the capital in some capacity for 35 years now, the last 23 being as member of parliament for Dulwich and West Norwood. And although she is standing down from her parliamentary seat this election, there will still be a few more hungry dogs to brave before she calls it a day. Jowell is seeking to be nominated as Labour’s candidate for London mayor.

 

Out with the New?

In spite of having represented a London seat for so long, and served in the roles of Minister for London and Olympics Minister, Jowell believes she still has far more to offer the city. But hasn’t this former Culture Secretary and veteran frontbencher of the New Labour years had her time in the sun? Will London swallow a candidate so closely associated to the political past?

“I’d want to bring a lot of what I've learnt, what I've done in other positions, to being mayor of London,” she says, fixing me with a gaze that teeters between soft and severe.

“The fact is, if you are a progressive politician, then the nature of demands on politics constantly changes, and it's what I think is one of the things we need to understand about the transition from old Labour to New Labour to...err...” she struggles to describe her party’s current state, “where we are now – One Nation Labour,” she adds hastily.

Jowell is often described as a Blairite, and was indeed promoted to her most high-profile posts under Tony Blair. But she has – at least outwardly – been an Ed Miliband loyalist throughout this parliament. She admits to having a lot of conversations with the Labour leader behind the scenes, but insists that loyalty is key.

Referring to recent unhelpful interventions from past New Labour heavyweights like Alan Milburn and Peter Mandelson, Jowell is forthright:

I have a very simple rule about this, which is that if you are a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party, your duty is to be loyal to your leader,” she asserts. “It doesn't mean that I haven't talked to Ed a lot in private, we've talked about a whole number of things, but I would always support him publicly, because being Leader of the Opposition is one of the most difficult jobs there is.”

Her pragmatic view of loyalty has a bit of the old Blairite way about it, as does her view of how Labour should be fighting this election. She is very dismissive of pursuing a so-called core vote strategy, and, as Blair did so successfully, believes Labour should target voters beyond its natural base.

“I don't think we've even got a... I don't think it's a 35 per cent strategy,” she says, referring to how Miliband’s detractors often refer to his campaign focus. “35 per cent is not a strategy. The public will decide what share of the vote Labour gets . . .

“‘We're going to get 35 per cent of the vote’ – that's ridiculous. You go for as many votes as you can across as wide a coalition as you can. You're in politics, and in an election campaign, to persuade as many people as you possibly can. And that's what I'm on the doorstep all over London doing all the time.

“My best way to spend a Sunday afternoon is talking to Tories about how they might just decide to vote Labour instead,” she beams. “And it may sound like an unpromising cause, but you'd be surprised at the number of switchers we're getting, particularly in some of our outer London seats.”

 

Tackling “Two Londons”

And it’s not just strategy – Jowell is also returning to some of the policy she formulated back in her ministerial days. Sure Start, an early-years support programme that was her baby during the New Labour years, is something she’s returning to when looking at inequality in London.

She recalls: “Sure Start started with the intention of being an early nurture programme to reinforce what is often the fragile relationship between a young mother who may lack confidence in her new baby.

“And it then evolved over time to become a national childcare programme ally to being a welfare-to-work programme, and the bit that rather got lost was early nurture,” she admits, adding that Sure Start “has now got to come back to” being about “very early inequality in the development of capacity and capability.

Inequality in childcare is one of the pillars of Jowell’s aim to tackle what she describes as the capital’s current crisis of being “two Londons, not one”. The others are health and housing inequality, and skills. She asserts, “If I became Mayor, everything I did would be focused on doing that [making ‘one London’].”

Some of her plans are more fleshed out than others. She won’t say how many more houses she would build, and is looking at “a whole variety of models” for home ownership.

Yet she has announced that she would tax owners of properties left empty in London, and goes further, telling me she wants, “to end the situation where the global superrich buy houses in London as if they were buying gold bars. They keep their gold bars in the bank, they buy houses in the street, they never intend to live in them; that destroys the nature of London. The important thing is to have a set of rules in relation to that, which are immune to clever circumventing.”

To achieve her aim of making “two Londons one”, Jowell would like to work with communities: “I'm in favour of a very high degree of decentralisation and devolution and trusting local communities in the development of solutions.”

 

Immigration conversation

Recently, the Public Accounts Committee chair and forceful Labour MP Margaret Hodge counted herself out of the mayoral race. The erstwhile contender told the Standard that she would like to see a “non-white mayor” representing the diversity of the city. This was taken by many as a dig at Jowell, as Labour’s other high-profile potential candidates are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

How did she react to this?

“I don't agree with her,” says Jowell. “I agree actually with Diane [Diane Abbott MP, another contender] that the important attributes for mayor of London are to be the best mayor of London. I would say a mayor who recognises the problems of London, who can tell the story of London, through the challenges that face London, but also has a plan for meeting those challenges.

“There's no point in simply making speeches about the problems facing London, you have to be somebody who can build confidence in Londoners that you can actually provide the answers that they're longing for,” she adds.

And it’s clear Jowell is eager to tell the story of London’s diversity. When I ask her what the main change in the city she has represented for so long has been, she replies that the optimism of London’s migrants “has begun to shape the optimism of the city”.

When she first moved to London in her early 20s in the autumn of 1969, to work as a social worker in Brixton, she recalls talking to a woman from Trinidad who had recently arrived in the city with her daughter and was working as a cleaner in King’s College Hospital:

“She said, ‘no one told me about the weather, they didn’t tell me it was cold here – and they told me that all the bridges that crossed the river Thames were made of pearl’,” Jowell breaks into an enormous grin. “Isn’t that just incredible?”

“Immigration is the greatest vote of confidence in a city, to come and want to live in our city, to serve our city, to make our city better, is a pretty big vote of confidence. I think we've become a more optimistic city, I think we've become more confident with our diverse identity.”

The question now is which politician will win that confidence from Londoners to take over the running of their city.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era