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30 March 2021

From the NS archive: Glenda Jackson on the race for mayor

29 November 1999: Glenda Jackson has excised all traces of a starry past; now, sure that a tortoise can win, she plods on in the race for mayor.

In the Nineties the twice Academy Award-winning Glenda Jackson took a hiatus from acting to focus on politics. In the 1992 general election she was elected as the Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate, a seat she held until 2015. She served as a junior transport minister under Tony Blair, until she resigned from the post to stand as the Labour candidate for the election of the first mayor of London in 2000, up against Frank Dobson and Ken Livingstone. “I’m not in this as some sort of vapid exercise in self-promotion,” she told Mary Riddell in this interview for the New Statesman during her mayoral campaign. “I am not some kind of patsy, and it was inconceivable to me that a party like ours wouldn’t have at least one woman on the bloody ballot paper.” But would that be enough for her to stand a chance of winning? “On any reasonable arithmetic,” Riddell observed, “the vision of mayor Jackson is so uncertain that one almost wonders why she chooses to slog on.”


Glenda Jackson apologises for “crawling around like an old tortoise”. As she explains: “It’s not so much the aftermath of the operation; more the drugs they give you to save your life.” Four weeks have passed since a Saturday morning visit to her GP resulted in an emergency appendectomy that evening. “When they opened me up, they found it was gangrenous,” she says, as briskly as if we were discussing ingrowing toenails. “If I hadn’t gone in I’d have got peritonitis, and I wouldn’t have been sitting here talking to you.”

So a life-or-death moment, Glenda? “It’s hard to know how life and death anything is,” she says, and one presumes her puzzlement is as applicable to politics as to physiology. Back in May, the first career obituary rolled when the Sunday Times incorrectly reported that the then junior transport minister was so disillusioned that she would relinquish her Hampstead and Highgate seat at the next election.

This was merely a prelude to the London mayoral race, in which a series of unattributed reports have depicted Jackson as the sort of candidate beside whom dead ducks look vibrant. First it was wrongly alleged that she was pulling out at the same time as Trevor Phillips. Then she was said to have promised to withdraw nearer the ballot date if she appeared to be inflicting damage on Frank Dobson. Subsequently she was reported to be quitting on the day of her selection panel interview. Practically the only incontestable thread in all this has been Jackson’s escalating fury.

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“Fucking liars,” she rails at the Millbank misinformers. “No, I won’t pull out, though people still ask me every day if l’m going to. I’m not in this as some sort of vapid exercise in self-promotion. I don’t respond well to this kind of pressure. If it had been directly exerted, I would have told the people involved to take a running jump. I am not some kind of patsy, and it was inconceivable to me that a party like ours wouldn’t have at least one woman on the bloody ballot paper.”

This view is endorsed by Ken Livingstone. “If l’d been in my opponents’ shoes, I’d have ignored me and shoved everything behind Glenda,” he told me recently. “They should have talked her up, and it was stupidity not to. She’s a very strong and independent woman and very convincing as a potential mayor. They’ve blown it.”

Jackson is suitably flattered. “Ken has told me about his support. Though he did turn round to me and add: ‘So that’s shafted you, hasn’t it?'”

She herself is too careful to express a preference between her rivals, although it seems likely that her sympathies lie with Livingstone, whose protracted selection so enraged her that she is unexpectedly mild about the Conservatives’ post-Archer debacle. “Given the shambles that informed our process, I’m hardly in a position to throw stones … ”

[See also: From the NS archive: The villain]

On Frank Dobson, she is merely sorrowful. “I do find it tragic that someone like Frank should be involved in the morass surrounding this campaign. He is not like that. It’s tragic for Frank and not good for the party … a double tragedy.” The notion of Dobson as the King Lear of the election becomes such a fugue-like refrain that I say in the end that we couldn’t be doing with a tragic mayor, and Jackson agrees that we could not.

So how irksome it must be to watch tragic Frank – whose popularity trailed hers by four points in the recent Guardian/ICM poll of Londoners’ preferences – being groomed for victory while she is side-lined. On any reasonable arithmetic, the vision of mayor Jackson is so uncertain that one almost wonders why she chooses to slog on. To win, she says of course, but the battle also enthrals her. Once possessed of almost Stepford-esque obeisance to all things Blairite, Jackson clearly relishes her newfound cussedness. Hardly more polite to the selection panel than Livingstone on her allegiance to the unwritten manifesto (“I told them I wouldn’t sign a blank cheque”), she is caustic about her treatment so far by the party machine.

“However much people try to spin or control, it’s a wasted effort as far as I am concerned. I actually take it as a plus that people are gunning for me. I’m not as negligible as some of those spinners would like to think… I am not in the business of bad-mouthing colleagues, but if one sees rubbishing – which would not come from Frank or Ken – then two can play at that game.” Besides, as she says, in a veiled warning to the Dobson campaign: “If there is a hint of anything untoward now that the official selection process is under way, whoever is chosen will look like a lame duck.”

Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to favour Jackson, once a feted actress and latterly a lacklustre minister and a mayoral back-marker.

[See also: From the NS archive: Why women deny their bodies]

Winning Oscars struck her as so unenthralling that she gave them to her mother – a former charlady from Merseyside – to put in the cupboard under the stairs, and she has absolutely no wish to return to the stage while she can find any niche, however lowly, in governance. The prospect of again being a back-bench MP strikes her as alluring: modest pay, hard slog, “improving people’s lives”.

But her Kipling-like stance on the twin impostors of triumph and disaster does not wholly explain her. I tell her it seems very odd that she excised all traces of her starry past when she entered the Commons, while Tony Blair makes a positive virtue of conflating theatre and politics. And she says: “I was deemed to be either an airhead or a prima donna. Acting – however much people pay it lip service – is not taken seriously.”

Whether she risked being forever pigeonholed as the woman who had her nipples sucked by Oliver Reed is as questionable as her second charge that she is not taken seriously largely because she is a woman. Tough and combative as she is, she has frequently suggested that she is a victim of boys’ club politics. “There is an automatic presumption that if a job is of a certain size or importance, you are looking for men to fill it. I deeply resent that.”

Reasonable as that may be, she seems – beyond the normal mantras of feminism – to have an almost visceral dislike of male supremacy. That attitude may be rooted as much in her personal as in her political life. Jackson was married once, to a theatre director, who was the father of her only son, Daniel. Her second partner was a lighting man. I ask her if he used to beat her, and she says, as if we were discussing the most normal thing in the world: “Oh yes. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a relationship with a man in which he hasn’t raised his fists to me.”

Has she simply been unlucky, or does she have a penchant for violent and abusive men? “I just think it’s an infinitely more usual situation than people ever acknowledge. I don’t mean I was mercilessly beaten… but I do think it’s something men have a tendency to do. It’s a very shocking experience – that intrusion – and I’m sure it’s far more common for women than is ever voiced. You can also punch back – which I invariably did, of course.”

[See also: From the NS archive: The age of reason]

This does rather define Jackson; mistrustful of the macho forces she sees as ranged against her and determined, when required, to offer a pugilist response. Her counter-attack on the “out-of-control freaks” of new Labour might seem dirge-like, except that she is as scathing about herself as of others.

“Ken and Frank have lots of old baggage and I am frequently described as one,” she says self-deprecatingly. She has also both survived and retained greater dignity than the early fallers Trevor Phillips, who “will have to live by what he has chosen to do”, and Nick Raynsford – “it was all a bit sad for him,” says Jackson triumphantly.

Of course she is go-getting. Always has been. She once told me, years and years ago, that when she took her first job, at Boots the chemist, her big challenge was to get off the catarrh-pastilles counter and on to bath salts. I never asked her if she made it. Given the frequent thwarting of Jackson’s most cherished ambitions, possibly not. She remains in the mayoral race, hampered by the Livingstone bandwagon, by malign spin-doctors and by post-operative slowness. Such obstacles do not deter Glenda Jackson. In her own mind at least, tortoises can come first.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 

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