The unbreakable Tessa Jowell? Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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
Show Hide image

We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.