With Boris Johnson heading back to Westminster and no obvious Tory candidates having his metropolitan appeal, the Labour candidacy for the London mayoralty is a great prize. Sadiq Khan has secured for himself a significant number of early advantages. The shadow minister for London has used this position to promote both his strengths as a campaigner and a left-minded political agenda.
But Khan’s biggest asset is also a handicap. As a frontbencher he has to stay loyal on issues like tax, spend and regional funding, while making clear he would speak up for London, even against his boss.
This means he has less political space to operate in than his rivals, who are united in suspecting that the fast timetable of the selection has been put in place to favour Khan, by limiting the scale of the political debate and size of the potential electorate.
The other candidates want more time and a bigger debate precisely because they would have more freedom to speak out, and by extension show they would be a more independent voice for London than a loyal minister could be.
Diane Abbott will position herself to Khan’s left, while David Lammy can stake a claim to be the voice of London’s diverse, tolerant, metropolitan social democracy. It is no coincidence that Lammy has spoken up about the value of immigration, something Khan has apologised to voters for allowing too much of.
Yet it is the two other big names in the race who may have the widest voter appeal. Margaret Hodge’s forensic filleting of tax-avoiding executives has made her the unexpected political hero of this parliament.
She is staking out a fascinating political position, using her experience in Barking and quizzing corporations to give herself a rebellious, even outsider, profile to push on two big issues for London: housing and tackling elites.
That ‘outsider’ status contrasts with both Khan and current front-runner, Tessa Jowell, whose record as London’s Olympics champion gives her credibility, and who could offer an appeal that extends beyond Labour’s heartlands into the suburbs and semis that gave Johnson two victories.
Khan has all the structural advantages, his rivals more freedom to define themselves: Abbott the authentic left, Lammy the optimist, Hodge the scyther of the elite, and Jowell the people’s choice.
Together they could combine to make sure that it is the guy with the official megaphone who struggles to be heard.
Things moved quickly in Scottish politics. Johann Lamont’s decision to quit was as sudden as it was dramatic. Lamont was not willing to be the fall guy if Labour struggled next May and, frustrated at being blamed for what she felt she could not control, decided to go. The fact that Jim Murphy had earlier disavowed any putsch ended up working in his favour.
Murphy’s appeal to members and parliamentarians seems likely to overcome the hostility of certain unions. We are sometimes urged to be more comradely in the Labour movement, but some of the rhetoric around the Scottish leadership election is as comradely as a show trial.
Why is it so ferocious? Because, if Murphy can win the support of Labour members in Scotland, then win back voters from the Scottish National party, the idea that Labour members want – and a Labour victory needs – a shift left to win becomes far less credible. If he fails, the reverse is true. Seen in this light, the attitude of London union leaders is as much a proxy war for Labour’s future as it is about renewing Labour in Scotland.
The storm before the calm?
The twitchy mood among Labour members of parliament reported here last month did not take long to burn out of control. The immediate cause of this aimless and unplanned susurration of discontent, was, of all things, an editorial in the New Statesman. This highlighted a truth often unspoken in the Labour party. The critique with the most capacity to wound Ed Miliband does not come from left, right or the press. Those can be managed, played off against each other, or, like media antagonism, be used to rally the troops. The only crucial group are those whose faith in Miliband gave him the leadership in the first place.
This explains why the mini-reshuffle played out the way it did. Lucy Powell’s rise to the position of vice-chair of Labour’s general election campaign is a recognition of her talents and ability (and of the importance, at last, of having a woman in the top election campaign team) but it also signifies the need to harness again the team that took Ed Miliband to the leadership. The same logic applies to the appointment of Jon Trickett to the leader’s office. The team that surprised the pundits and won is now in place to do so again, on a larger stage.
The result has been noticeable already. The political message has been crisper, the strategy clearer. Labour MPs, worried as much by a fear of nervous indecision as by the polls, can see where Labour wants to go, who it stands for, who it stands against. Now we must pull together.
One winner in Rochester and Strood was Labour’s candidate Naushabah Khan, who was praised across the political spectrum as being the strongest candidate, easily outclassing the man who had already spent four years in parliament. Khan, a keen kickboxer, was an articulate advocate for Labour who nevertheless managed to carve out her own space in the current raging debate, not least on immigration. She told Progress in an interview last month that the rise of Ukip and associated division and intolerance meant this was ‘not the country I grew up in’, turning the populist party’s own language right back on it and striking a blow for a vision of Britain characterised by diversity and acceptance – something many in Labour wish its frontbrench would do a little more of.
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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