There was an end-of-term feeling about it all. And with the headmistress missing, there was plenty of opportunity for mischief.
“Tonight, you are part of history,” The Guardian guy, Dave Hill, who was chairing the meeting, announced. “This is the final Labour Mayoral selection hustings.” Hmm. It’s hardly England winning the Ashes-type history, though, is it, Dave?
For a second time in the space of a week, the Cedar Hall of Ruskin House was full to overflowing for a political meeting. On a week night. In August. So much for the public not being engaged with politics.
Last week, it was Corbynmania, and a bit of a love-in. Last night, the attraction for the 200-or-so in the hall could have been the anticipation of a little more conflict, as five candidates seeking the Labour nomination to run for London Mayor next May were taking their last chance to pitch for people’s votes.
It’s the nature of an intra-party debate that there appeared to be widespread consensus across most issues. “I agree with David,” and “Christian is right,” were said more than once. Though nothing was uttered as many times as, “My dad was a bus driver”.
The only truly spiky moment came when racism came up. A member of the audience – this week, made up almost exclusively of Labour Party members, including many councillors from across south London – asked what the candidates would do to win back those voters on the estates and in working class areas in the suburbs who had gone over to UKIP.
Diane Abbott took this moment to deliver her most passionate soundbyte of the evening, her version of the First They Came For… poem. Immigration, she said, was not the cause of our city’s, or the nation’s, problems. “Anyone, like me, who was around in the 1970s, will recognise the rhetoric being used now about the east Europeans as the same as was used then about Africans, Caribbeans and Asians.
“If today they come for you, tomorrow they’ll be coming for me.” The room sparked into life at this.
And David Lammy responded. Lammy had been the most energised of the speakers on the night, and Abbott had just served as his warm-up act. He saw this as an opportunity to score a direct hit on one of his opponents. Lammy said he could never forgive Sadiq Khan, the Tooting MP and former shadow cabinet member, for the letter he sent last year to the Express – the Express, for goodness sake – apologising for Labour’s policy on immigration.
“Do not cave in, ever, to the racists,” Lammy said.
Khan seemed shaken by this, and resorted to referring to “Desperate David”, and defending his own record by referencing his work as a lawyer at Lunar House on behalf of asylum seekers. But the Khan apologia is out there, and there was a sense that his support is ebbing away.
Lammy, Abbott and the campaign’s revelation, Christian Wolmar, all offered a solution to the more desperate politics of envy – stronger trades unions. Lammy highlighted that in London, 88 per cent of jobs are in service industries, a large proportion of those in retail. “Many feel that they are trapped in low-paid jobs, having to do two, three, four jobs just to survive,” Lammy said. Ahh, what a wonderful prospect Hammersfield is for Croydon…Stronger unions, said Abbott, would help protect workers’ rights and living standards. Wolmar said, “The unions have been weakened over decades, which has allowed the neo-liberals to shift power, and money, from labour to capital. The unions may need some modernising, but my gosh do we need to believe in them.”
But despite the best efforts of the organisers, there was something missing. Namely Dame Tessa Jowell, the favourite to win the selection. Apparently, Dame Tessa, who at 67 has retired from Parliament to pursue a career in public relations and a part-time job at City Hall, had something far more important to attend last night than a hustings event organised by 10 constituency Labour parties in a part of south London which could, next May, deliver enough votes to elect a Labour Mayor for only the second time in 16 years.
There were members of “Team Tessa” in attendance, of course, such as Sarah Jones, who but for another 200 votes in Croydon Central last May would by now be an MP. Instead, last night Jones was given the task of calling time on the Mayoral candidates’ mini-speeches. It was not clear whether the allocation of this task was intended to be cruel or not.
In place of Dame Tessa was a London Assembly Member, Andrew Dismore. There’s a suggestion that Dismore wasn’t even Jowell’s first-choice as a stand-in. He was pleasant enough, utterly loyal to the Blairite former cabinet minister, and told us that he has now got a Freedom Pass. Which is nice. But it was hardly a performance to sway the undecideds in the audience, who will be receiving their ballot papers this week.
AND NO MATTER how expertly the event was chaired, there was a sense of superficiality about some of the candidate responses when trying to cover all the bases in a wide-ranging two hours, so that there tended to be well-rehearsed soundbytes trotted out, rather than any drilling down into the subject areas which any London Mayor truly has within their remit.It took a Croydon councillor, Karen Jewitt, for example, to raise from the floor the issue of the promised but undelivered tram extensions, which had gone unmentioned by the candidates, not least because they had each been given only a single minute to discuss how they would deploy Transport for London’s £9billion annual budget. Duly prompted, trams, the candidates agreed, are A Good Thing.
Between them, the candidates were able to trot out a litany of vanity projects on which Boris Johnson had squandered millions of public cash over the past seven years, from the plans for an estuary airport, to the Dangle Way and Boris Bus.
And it was here that some daylight began to appear between the candidates. Dame Tessa is now employed by a communications group which is supporting the Garden Bridge, despite widespread public opposition to it. Of the Labour candidates, only Dame Tessa and Gareth Thomas support the third runway at Heathrow, something which is also opposed by the Tory front-runner as Mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith.
“I won’t ignore the 40,000 jobs that the runway at Heathrow will create,” Thomas said, apparently forgetting the 9,000 Londoners who die every year because of the city’s toxic air quality, caused in part by aircraft flying in and out of Heathrow.
The Westminster politicians do need to brush up on what powers the London Mayor really has. When Will Self last week described the job of London Mayor as, “essentially a lopsided combination of glorified transport manager and international marketing executive for ‘London plc’,” he displayed a better grasp of the role than some of Labour’s candidates last night.
Thomas, for instance, believes he can get a Tory Government to devolve more powers to a City Hall under a Labour Mayor. Good luck with that one, Gazza. Abbott, meanwhile, wants the return of the education maintenance allowance, something else which is unlikely to happen while Gideon Osborne is at No11.
Wolmar, as the only non-career politician in the field and an accomplished writer and broadcaster, delivered probably the best thought-out summary at the end of the evening, helped because so many aspects of his campaign – to flatten the TfL fares structure, especially in outer London; the one-hour bus ticket; pedestrianising Oxford Street; and effective re-nationalisation of overground trains within the capital – had all been adopted and championed by the other candidates during the evening.
“If it’s good, nick it,” said Khan, sounding like some street urchin from Tooting market.
There was even an outright, sarf London cheer when Wolmar announced that, whatever the neighbouring borough’s council might say, if he were Mayor he would push through the Bakerloo Tube line to Bromley. “Bromley’s Tory council has got form in this respect,” he said, “Remember their opposition to Ken’s Fares Fair, and what happened then?” Ahh, the good old days. And to think that Livingstone was first elected as London Mayor against the wishes of Tony Blair.
Lammy probably offered the best rhetoric, but his campaign seems fatally flawed because of his adherence to a policy of building houses on the Green Belt, something which his five rivals all agreed would be “like handing a loaded gun to Lynton Crosby and inviting him to shoot the Labour candidate”, as Thomas put it.
Were Jowell’s ears burning while she had her friendly chat with a few friends in Richmond? In her absence, the blame for Fixed Odds Betting Terminals – FOBTs – and the proliferation of betting shops blighting our high streets was firmly laid at her door. “I didn’t vote for it,” Abbott was able to state. Did we hear a pantomime-like hiss and boo at the mere mention of FOBTs?
Of course, Dame Tessa was the minister responsible for the legislation. But by swerving the Croydon hustings she probably avoided any real damage to her chances of selection. Which was undoubtedly why she opted to absent herself.
“If she is selected as the Mayoral candidate, Jowell will carry exactly the same Blairite baggage with her that dragged down Labour’s campaign at the General Election. And then some,” one senior Croydon figure confided at the end of proceedings last night. “In which case, City Hall could be about to have another Old Etonian Mayor, and that would be disastrous for London.”
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