Tessa Jowell wants to close the gap between "two Londons". Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496