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.

Photo: Getty
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The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.