Diane Abbott MP is the most popular London mayoral candidate among Labour supporters, according to a YouGov poll. Photo: Getty
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Poll reveals Diane Abbott MP as Labour voters’ favourite for London mayoral candidate

What does the surge in popularity for Hackney's MP tell us about Labour voters' hopes for the London mayoralty?

The Evening Standard is reporting a YouGov poll that shows Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, to be the favourite contender for London Mayor in 2016 among the party’s supporters.

Dame Tessa Jowell, the veteran Labour frontbencher and MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, has so far been the favourite among those who say they intend to vote Labour in the 2015 general election, so this is a significant development for those jostling to be Labour’s mayoral candidate in 2016.

The survey found that 17 per cent of Labour supporters would back Abbott, whereas 14 per cent would go for Jowell, the first time the latter – who served as Olympics minister – has been overtaken in this kind of poll. However, she is still the favourite among general voters: 11 per cent compared to Abbott’s nine per cent.

But what chance does Abbott have?

The way that Labour’s mayoral candidate will be chosen is through a closed primary in 2015, where party members and people who register as a party supporter and pay a small fee can take part in the vote. This differs from their old system, which gave trade unions 50 per cent of the vote. It is also a different system to that which then-shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy proposed, in which any Londoner could have voted.

This means whoever is up in ordinary Labour voters’ estimation at the time is most likely to be chosen, rather than the parliamentary party having a great deal of influence. So, in theory, political manoeuvring among candidates matters less than pounding the pavements.

Around Westminster, I’ve heard Abbott criticised by both sides of the House. She was given a lot of stick when running for the Labour leadership in 2010. Lazy is a slight that is often thrown her way (I remember a fellow political journalist telling me they once went to interview her at her house and she emerged blearily in a nighty). By party loyalists she’s often felt to be too divisive and disloyal, approaching politics from quite a hardline leftwing perspective, and Tories can be derisive about her.

One Labour staffer who works on London issues tells me, "I can't imagine Diane Abbott doing that well amongst the PLP, especially considering some of the candidates she is apparently going up against. Personally, I must say the thought of her in charge of London and a multi-billion pound budget to boot is a truly terrifying prospect."

However, the fact that support for Abbott appears to have risen above that of more established candidates such as Jowell and serial frontbencher and current shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan tells us what Labour voters want from their version of Boris. Someone who hasn’t been tainted by too many years on the frontbenches, and therefore speaks plainly and is not afraid to be outspoken against their party.

This is reinforced by Tottenham MP David Lammy, a figure in the Labour Party of a similar ilk to Abbott (though with different politics), being third most popular in the poll. It’s not so much about political leaning; it’s about supporting an outsider who’s more comfortable in their London constituency than around the shadow cabinet table.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn fares well in his toughest interview yet

Labour will be relieved that Corbyn's encounter with Andrew Neil was less painful than Theresa May's. 

Jeremy Corbyn's half-hour BBC1 interview with Andrew Neil was the toughest grilling he has faced since becoming Labour leader. Neil sought to cause Corbyn maximum discomfort by confronting him with his past views on the IRA, NATO and Trident (which he never anticipated having to defend from his current position). 

"I didn't support the IRA, I don't support the IRA," Corbyn said in response to the first. After Neil countered that Corbyn "invited convicted IRA terrorists to tea in the Commons a few weeks after the Brighton bomb," the Labour leader replied: "I never met the IRA. I obviously did meet people from Sinn Fein" (a distinction without a difference, some will say). But after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Corbyn is aided by the reduced toxicity of the subject (New Labour dealt with terrorists) and the fact that for some voters, the young most of all, "the troubles" are a distant memory.

NATO, Neil recalled, had been described by Corbyn as "'a very dangerous Frankenstein of an organisation', 'a danger to world peace'. Two years ago you said it should be 'wound up'." It is to Corbyn's credit, in some respects, that he struggles to disguise his sincere views, and he did on this occasion. "NATO exists," he observed at one point, eventually conceding after much prodding: "I will be a committed member of that alliance in order to promote peace, justice, human rights and democracy". But nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the subject will seem esoteric to many voters.

Trident, however, is another matter. "My views on nuclear weapons are well-known," Corbyn correctly noted, making it clear that the Labour manifesto committed to full renewal against his wishes. "I voted against the renewal," he said. "Everybody knows that because I wanted to go in a different direction." That the opposition is divided on such a profound issue - and that Corbyn's stance is at odd with the electorate's - is undoubtedly a drag on Labour's support.

But under forensic examination, Corbyn emerged stronger than many predicted. There were few moments of intemperance and no disastrous gaffes. Corbyn successfully dodged a question on whether Labour would cut immigration by replying that the numbers would "obviously reduce" if more workers were trained. Indeed, compared with Theresa May's painful encounter with Neil last Monday, Corbyn's team will be relieved by his performance. Though the Labour leader cannot escape his past, he avoided being trapped by it tonight. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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