Of all the strange aspects of Labour’s strangest-ever summer, is anything stranger than the Jeremy-Tessa crossover? Nobody has much statistical evidence of this yet but, again and again, I hear of, or from, Labour members who are voting Corbyn for leader, and Tessa Jowell for the London mayoral candidacy.
Thus, in some minds at least, Tony Benn’s spiritual successor and Tony Blair’s close friend lock hands. Certainly, if the polls are to be believed (and, of course, that’s a big “if”), it will be the unlikely combination of Jeremy and Tessa wearing the victory laurels in September. Just what is going on?
Well, there is no way that any plausible ideological coming-together can be imagined. Jeremy Corbyn is a straight-down-the-line hard leftist, while Tessa is the living embodiment of New Labour triangulation. And yet, when you’ve said that, there’s another, equally interesting story just under the surface.
Both of these politicians, however apparently different, are Londoners loyal to Labour who are learning to practise a different kind of politics. Corbyn is mobilising a grass-roots enthusiasm through mass meetings and passionate stump speeches, albeit with the assistance of powerful figures in the union movement. Jowell is reaching out in a slightly different way, creating an enormously impressive web of young supporters and activists across the capital, stitching together what may be the strongest social media campaign any British politician has yet deployed.
My Twitter account – and that’s just one example – has become almost unusable because of the avalanche of Tessa-supporting voices and backers… a multicoloured outpouring of generally young, smiling, positive people declaring their devotion to her. I know her rivals are trying to do the same but, just now, she seems to be far ahead in this area. From a very different part of the political spectrum, it is not so different from the energy of Corbyn-mania. It’s part, at least, of the future of politics.
And this is not simply about process or clever marketing. Corbyn has a clear and easy-to-understand message: swing to the left, fight austerity, ditch Trident. At a more local level, Jowell has an equally clear headline: build homes. She is campaigning on all sorts of issues, of course, from childcare to transport but her overwhelming message in a housing-starved and market-dysfunctional capital city is on social housing and housebuilding: homes, homes, homes for the people who need them.
Next year, if all goes according to plan, Jowell may become the party’s most senior figure chosen by popular vote. And therefore, inescapably, a player in whatever happens to the Labour Party over the next few years. In party terms, she would be a much bigger Labour player than Boris Johnson has been as mayor inside the Conservative family during the Cameron-Osborne years.
So Jowell’s very success poses a massive conundrum for the Corbyn movement. Does Jeremy continue to “make nice”, recognise the popularity and potency of a different kind of Labour politician, and do his best to help her beat off Zac Goldsmith, or whoever the Tories put up? Or do the Corbynistas wage war against a Blairite candidate who appears to be beating their ideological soul-mate Diane Abbott, and try to derail her?
It’s a massive decision which will have repercussions for years to come, and of all the big decisions Jeremy Corbyn would have to take quickly as Labour leader, it’s one of the most important.
So, cards on the table: for Corbyn to turn against Jowell would look terrible, an act of sectarian spite which would demolish any goodwill he hopes to rely on in other parts of the party. Anyway, I don’t think it would work. They can brief against her, deny her trade union supporters when the battle hots up, and eventually try to keep her at arm’s length from the party leadership; but I don’t see that they can successfully undermine her now. An attempted anti-Jowell bid would almost certainly fail, just as Tony Blair’s attempt to squash Ken Livingstone’s candidacy failed from the other end of the spectrum, with the help of people now working through Corbyn.
But what’s the alternative? Jowell would be a Labour mayor the Cameron government could do some kinds of business with, and might even view favourably as against an anti-Cameron Tory maverick like Goldsmith. Such “business” would translate into houses, deals over budgets and much else. Corbyn would have to watch a very different Labour figure apparently doing rather well a few miles to the east. Is he big enough?
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