Andrew Adonis: "The tale of two cities is the reality of London"

The Labour peer talks London, inequality, and why the SNP's hand is weaker than it looks

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In Five Days in May, his account of the “raw battle for power” after the last election, Andrew Adonis insists that a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have been possible after the 2010 election.

Besides Nick Clegg’s instinctive preference for a deal with the Conservatives and the electoral arithmetic – a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would have been a minority government – the apparent desperation of many Labourites to relinquish power presented another problem. Adonis’ book quotes one MP in the days when a grand ‘progressive alliance’ still looked possible: “We lost the election. By getting out now, we can regroup and we will be back soon. This lot won’t last five years, no chance.”

It is not a judgement that has aged well.

Adonis, the former Secretary of State for Transport and Head of the Policy Unit, was an unusual Labour voice during the last election campaign and the chaotic days that followed: he actually thought that the party could remain in government through a coalition.

“Once you understood how the polls translated into seats it looked as if there was a very good chance of one but there wasn't [that view] among my friends and colleagues. Most people thought this was a very unlikely outcome - almost everybody thought the Tories were going to end up with a majority,” he tells me when we meet in the office. “To be absolutely frank, we were all astonished at how well we did because we thought that we were virtually certain to lose.”

Now Adonis is far more optimistic that Labour will provide the next Prime Minister – a feeling driven by what he has witnessed in the capital.

“I've spent the last two weeks doing what I like best which is campaigning by train - this time around London,” Adonis says. “I've campaigned in nearly 20 seats and the Labour ground war is extremely impressive - huge numbers of energetic volunteers and great candidates.”

As Adonis is fond of pointing out, London has more seats than Scotland. Despite the impediment of being led by Gordon Brown in 2010, Labour still won a majority of seats in London – 38 out of 73.

There are strong signs that it could win more this year. Labour beat the Conservatives by 14 points in London in the European elections last year – a far better performance than its mediocre overall result – and a new Yougov poll gives Labour a 12 point lead in the capital. 

“On the basis of the great campaign we're having in London, we could end up with between 45 and 50 seats which would be a spectacular result,” Adonis says. What he considers a lacklustre Tory campaign drives his optimism. “I haven’t met a single Tory canvasser in my whole two weeks campaigning yet and there’s only one constituency where I've seen Tory posters. It looks to me that a lot of their candidates have basically given up.”

Adonis credits Labour’s appeal in London to the transformation of the party’s image. “In the 1980s local government - particularly Labour local government - was a byword for extremism and catastrophe. Now it’s a byword for responsibility and success.”

In 2013, Bill de Blasio was elected as Mayor of New York on a platform championing opposition to inequality. It was a result that elicited much excitement among many of Ed Miliband’s team. Adonis suggests that similar dynamics are at work in London in 2015.

“Our big theme in London is that we represent all parts of the community - we're strongly pro wealth creation and enterprise, but also the third of Londoners who live at or near poverty - we're on their side too,” he says. “The tale of two cities is the reality of London. It has higher concentrations of poverty alongside concentrations of wealth than anywhere in the country and almost anywhere in the developed world so it is a huge issue and it’s part of the reason why Labour is doing so well: a party which can credibly claim to bridge the divide and to stand for one London.”

Until recently, it was thought that Adonis might want to represent the capital; he considered standing for Mayor of London next year – quite a step up from his last successful election, to Oxford City council in 1987. But in February he announced he was supporting the candidacy of the “outstanding” Tessa Jowell. “We need a mayor who can actually get things done. The big crisis facing London at the moment is homes and Boris is barely building half as many homes as he himself says are needed.”

For now the Mayoral election next year can wait. No Labour or Tory politicians will admit as much, but the country is preparing for a hung Parliament. Adonis suggests that, should this transpire, minor parties – including by implication the SNP - might not have as much power as it seems. “I’d be astonished if any of the smaller parties wanted to precipitate an early general election because I think they'd be widely blamed for the resulting instability if they did.”

In the bedlam that will follow an indecisive general election result, Adonis will surely be used by Labour to reach out to his old party; his warning that history would “never forgive” Nick Clegg if another Tory-Lib coalition led to Brexit suggests his mind is already focused on wooing the Lib Dems. But asked about his involvement in any negotiations in a hung Parliament, Adonis maintains the conspiracy of silence. “I’d rather not talk about those today if you don’t mind,” he laughs. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.