The unbreakable Tessa Jowell? Photo: Getty Images
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Can anyone stop Tessa Jowell?

Labour's disappointing showing in London has recalibrated that party's Mayoral race - and the winner is Tessa Jowell.

"And that's the mayoral contest fucked as well," texted one supporter of Sadiq Khan as the results came in on election night. A neglible 0.3 per cent swing away from the Conservatives in Khan's own seat of Tooting echoed the disappointments to come: disappointing defeats to the Conservatives in Harrow East, Hendon, Finchley, and Khan's neighbouring constituency of Battersea.

2015 was meant to be part of the London Labour party's three-step plan to 2016: win the local and European elections, win a bumper crop of seats in the general election, win the Mayoral election. But instead of going into that final contest with a 2-0 lead over the Conservatives, it is very much 1-1. 

"I thought we'd have to spend ages praising Sadiq's landslide," says one rival campaign insider.  But the matter didn't arise. Boris Johnson's dreaded "doughnut" of Conservative voters in outer London remains largely intact. A Khan campaign source, before the general election, described their challenge as "convincing people the Mayor matters, that it's more than just picking the nicest or most well-known candidate". Now, it's about convincing members that their candidate can win: and that helps Jowell. 

The Conservatives still have considerable problems in London. Their post-Johnson candidates aren't of a particularly high quality: Sol Campbell, a hologram of Tupac Shakur, a few Johnson-era flunkies no-one has heard of, and that's it. But if they can secure a genuine top-tier candidate, like Zac Goldsmith or Karren Brady, Labour staffers concede, the party could easily hold onto City Hall in 2016.

That's changed the tenor of the contest. "We are still going to have the same focus on what Tessa's done in the past - SureStart, the Olympics - and her plans for the future on housing, crime and transport," one Jowell staffer says, "But now we've got to add to that: to say that we've only won the Mayoralty once, that we haven't won an election in decade, that we last won City Hall in 2004." 

That focus on electability appears to be helping Jowell, who has a clear lead in constituency nominations so far, despite declared candidates needing just five nominations from CLPs to get a place on the ballot. She will be joined on the ballot by Khan, David Lammy and Diane Abbott. It remains to be seen whether the transport campaigner Christian Wolmar or Gareth Thomas, the Harrow East MP, will make it onto the ballot. 

Can any of those candidates stop Jowell? The campaign, originally intended to be a short, sharp affair has been extended, ostensibly to help Khan, who, having recieved the backing of Unite and the GMB, is thought most likely to benefit from having more time to sign up supporters from the trade union. The next stage is partly about converting supporters who are already registered - but also about signing up new voters from the trade unions and general public.

The longer campaign makes it easier to recruit new supporters, but probably, harder to convert existing ones. "Twice the time means half the coverage," sighed one Jowell staffer. The membership is focussing on the leadership election, as are most of the Labour-inclined press. The Evening Standard will give intermittent coverage - "but any hope that they'd make us the most important thing vanished the second we decided to spend months on it", in the words of another campaign source.  That may fatally harm Lammy and Thomas, both of whom have put forward big ideas about where London goes next, but will be drowned out by a combination of the Burnham vs Kendall bunfight and general apathy. That just leaves two serious rivals for Jowell: Khan and Abbott. 

Frankly, even assuming a heroic feat of recruitment - and Khan certainly has a team that could pull that off - Jowell has a big lead among Labour voters and supporters. And remember that "trade union members" are some distance from the Bolshevik organisers of caricature - on the whole, they are "less politically well-informed and just more normal" in the words of one trade union official than Labour activists. Both of those help the Jowell campaign, who has the highest profile. A decent chunk of Unite and the GMB's recruits will back their preferred candidate, but a non-trivial number will vote for the candidate that they are most likely to have heard of, and that's Jowell. 

There's just one caveat worth bearing in mind: there is a candidate who is both incredibly well-known by the public at large, and is also politically closer to some of the more politically engaged trade union members who will also be signed up. Her name is Diane Abbott. If anyone can eat into Jowell's lead, it may well be her.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge