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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The politics of the kiss

From the classical period via the Kremlin to the Clintons: a brief history of political smooching.

Iowa and New Hampshire are behind us. Super Tuesday beckons. For fans of the competitive sport of baby-kissing, this is as good as it gets.

Meanwhile, closer to Britain, kissing’s in our very constitution. Jeremy Corbyn’s future, depending on his success, could involve taking a trip to the Palace to kiss hands as Prime Minister – and as a republican. Being sworn into the Privy Council in November, he even managed a peck on the royal paw, but reportedly stood fast and did not kneel.

Why is there so much snogging in politics? 

Ancient Romans and Persians established – dare we – a pecking order on meeting. This ritual would make it instantly clear if they were equals (full-on, mouthy kiss, the basium), separated by a slight gap (cheeky peck, an osculum), or vast unequals (foot-kissing accompanied by much grovelling). Even heads of state greeted people in this way.

And there was nothing more dramatic – and bizarre – than the socialist fraternal kiss. Kremlinologists would even measure its intensity, to see how close Communist leaders were. The rule was to do three alternate kisses on the cheek, aping the Ancien Régime’s Orthodox Easter greeting. When two leaders were especially chummy – like then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and GDR head Erich Honecker at the 30th anniversary of the GDR in East Berlin in 1979 – the world would witness a big, sloppy lip-plant. Paris Match splashed Régis Bossu’s iconic black-and-white image of the socialist snog across a double-page spread. Le Baiser, they called it.

Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph Stalin’s successor, locked lips with USSR chairman Klim Voroshilov when returning from a US visit in 1959. In July 1937, Stalin planted a decidedly non-frigid one on Ivan Spirin, a polar explorer and state hero.

But Brezhnev was the true practitioner. The joke in Russia went that he described a Warsaw Pact comrade “as a politician, rubbish...but a good kisser!”

Aside from the steamy Kremlin, social kissing on the mouth declined with the Black Death.

The courtly handkuss (kiss on the hand) generally went the same way with the fall of the German and Russian monarchies in 1917-18, though hung on longer in Austria. 

But French president Jacques Chirac made it his trademark, playing to the gallery with French élégance. An Associated Press story from 1967 chronicles the sad plight of European diplomats who had chanced it in Washington. One congressional wife jumped back, claiming she had been bitten; another said a stone was missing from her ring. “Chivalry has its drawbacks,” the story observed.

But back to the babies. We see kissing-as-canvassing in William Hogarth’s 1755 series The Humours of an Election

And in a close-fought 1784 Westminster by-election, we read of 24 women out canvassing with kisses – including the Duchesses of Rutland, Argyll, Ancaster, and (somewhat infamously) Devonshire. 

Kissing voters’ wives – now probably frowned upon by CCHQ – was customary fare for the 18th-century candidate. It’s only in the following century that we see the desexualisation of the electioneering kiss, moving to babies as innocuous. 

In 1836, Charles Dickens has his character Pickwick go to witness a post-Reform Act by-election in Eatanswill. “He has patted the babies on the head,” says the candidate’s election agent, trembling with anxiety. Roar of applause. “He has kissed one of ‘em!” Second roar. “He's kissing ‘em all!” The crowd’s shouts are deafening. And the candidate Slumkey coasts home to Parliament.

US presidents Richard Nixon, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison forswore baby kissing, grasping for a higher-minded political plane. Bernie Sanders, too. 

But how are the rest of today's politicians doing, kiss-wise?

Barack Obama: After two terms, a kisser to be reckoned with. With adults. Apparently he doesn’t relish kissing babies, and has been called fatally ill-at-ease holding one. Full points for his lucky save with a reticent Aung San Suu Kyi in 2014, ending with a perfectly creditable side-hug and ear-kiss.

Pity Michelle, photographed rolling her eyes as Barack went in for the selfie with, say, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt in 2013. (For her part, Michelle fobbed off Silvio Berlusconi with a fully outstretched arm, taking no chances.)

David Cameron: Utterly denied by SamCam after his Tory conference speech in October 2015. Lord Grantham says in Downton he spent most of Eton avoiding the kisses of other boys; clearly, the Prime Minister didn’t get much practice while at school.

Angela Merkel: In her first meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy, out she came with a businesslike German handshake just as he ducked for the Gallic kiss. In a moment of British romantic awkwardness last May, during Cameron’s EU reform tour, we saw the Prime Minister lean in, short of closing the deal, as she pulled back and possibly searched for some new regulations to beat him away with.

Hillary Clinton: Is said to enjoy kissing babies. Is said not to enjoy kissing Bill, as in the 2008 Correspondents’ Dinner when she expertly ducked one from him.  And scored one from Obama instead. But maybe she ought to lay off the baby-kissing: a journal article in Political Psychology suggests voters are 15 per cent less likely to vote for women candidates when their adverts evoke female gender stereotypes.

Donald Trump: In August, his baby-kiss in Alabama went viral – the baby’s mother just a bit too keen, the baby’s confusion mingled with slight fear reflecting the views of many of us. “That baby is us,” wrote blogger Stassa Edwards.

It’s a long road from here to the US election in November. And Cameron can look forward to kissing up to Merkel and a hot summer of Italian, Dutch, and even French kisses too.

So this Valentine’s Day, spare a thought for the babies. And the bureaucrats.