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 domestic and global politics.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue