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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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