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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.

By Stephen Bush

“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.” 

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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.

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