Beyond Tribalism

Aaron Bastani

Tessa Jowell is the current bookmakers’ favourite to be the Labour candidate in next year’s London mayoral election. If the odds are to be believed, Sadiq Khan is the only other person who stands a chance. Diane Abbott, the candidate most likely to benefit from the recent surge in Labour Party membership and support for Jeremy Corbyn, is well behind at 25-1. The Hackney MP shouldn’t be written off just yet – Corbyn was once a 100-1 shot for the party leadership – but the chances of a second bushwhack by the Labour left seem remote.

Which raises an interesting question. Given the relative radicalism of Londoners, who twice elected Ken Livingstone as mayor and furnish Labour with its only safe seats in the south, what happens to the energy behind Corbyn if Jowell, who once said she would throw herself under a bus for Tony Blair, gets the nomination? It’s fair to say that her ‘moderate’ politics won’t foment the enthusiasm that his leadership campaign has generated. With her involvement in the flops of both ‘blue’ and ‘purple’ Labour, she appears committed to any flag the party marches under, so long as it isn’t red.

The limits of Jowell’s potential candidacy can be situated in an international context, too. In recent years, on both sides of the Atlantic, radical political change has taken root at the level of local government. The SNP made its massive gains in the general election in May after it had already won a majority at Holyrood. Syriza’s breakthrough in Greece came in last year’s local elections. In Spain, the radical left found its first electoral expression in June, taking the mayoralties of four of the country’s five largest cities. The scale of Bill de Blasio’s victory in New York two years ago was to some extent the electoral outgrowth of Occupy Wall Street. Earlier this year, the progressive Jesús García mounted a serious challenge to the incumbent mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. In Seattle, Kshama Sawant is an explicitly socialist city council member who has been one of the country’s most prominent advocates for a $15 minimum wage.

All of this would appear propitious for a candidate of the radical left in London next year. Were either Jowell or Khan to run, it is likely that the favoured Tory candidate, Zac Goldsmith, would prevail. The current favourite to win the Green Party nomination is Sian Berry, their candidate in 2008 when they finished a respectable fourth. In 2012 they beat the Liberal Democrats to third place. What would it take for Berry to have a shot at winning against Goldsmith and Jowell, however unlikely that may be? The answer is that the ‘Corbynistas’ – from Owen Jones, Mark Serwotka and Charlotte Church to the tens of thousands of Londoners who have joined Labour in recent months – would have to walk the walk on political pluralism. Would Jones, for instance, support Jowell over an anti-austerity rival who promised to deal with London’s high-rent, low-pay economy? That’s what the party rules demand, but it would lead to many of Labour’s newer members becoming quickly disenchanted. The British left, to be serious about power, must go beyond tribalism.


  • 15 August 2015 at 9:07am
    frmurphy98 says:
    Can anybody shed some light on why Tessa Jowell has ever been the bookmakers' favourite to be Labour's mayoral candidate?

    I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that Tessa has only ever been known to the public for two things. Most recently, for her relentless boasts about the incomparable, inspirational legacy of the 2012 Olympics, especially for the poor people of the East End. Yet fully three years after the event, it is now revealed that residents of the host borough, Newham, have the lowest levels of physical activity of any area in the UK - bar none.

    Hitherto, the only action of Tessa Jowell's that attracted significant public attention was the unseemly haste with which she abandoned her long-term husband once the media got wind of his dodgy dealings with Silvio Berlusconi.

    In light of this, is it unreasonable to ask what is the basis of her apparent popularity?

  • 15 August 2015 at 11:07am
    Oliver Rivers says:
    It's true that things are going to look odd for Labour if its members choose Corbyn as leader, and those same members (at least the London ones) choose Jowell as their candidate for mayor. Bastani is silent on why the same electorate might produce these results. There are also other points on which he is silent.

    Ken Livingstone ran for mayor four times and lost twice--each time to Boris Johnson, a charismatic Tory who adopted a semi-detached position to his own party. Tories like winning elections, and if they pick Goldsmith, who can be readily characterised in the same terms, it will be because they've noticed this is a winning formula and have decided to stick to it.

    Bastani cites the international context. But the economic and political circumstances of Greece and Spain differ hugely from those in the the UK. Spain has 22% unemployment, and youth unemployment of 49%. In Greece the equivalent numbers are 25% and 53% respectively. But in the UK they are only 6% and 14%. The electoral success of Syriza and Podemos also has to do with popular frustration with clientism and corruption, problems which we have here on nothing like the same scale. One might conclude from these facts that the economic and political situation has to deteriorate very sharply before a radical left has a hope of emerging as a credible electoral force, and we're some way from that point in the UK.

    Bastani's final paragraph is particularly confused. Are the circumstances for a radical left alternative "propitious", or are Siân Berry's chances of winning "unlikely"? Both can't be true. The latter term surely better characterises the prospects of a rainbow coalition led by Church, Serwotka, and Jones.

    Labour needs to radically reimagine what it means to be a social democratic party in the 21st century, and part of that process will be a new engagement with popular protest movements on the left. But that's not an exercise that will be achieved through data-averse magical thinking.

    • 25 August 2015 at 5:43pm
      Pauldev says: @ Oliver Rivers
      Only 14% youth unemployment? It would be more accurate to say that even though it is as high as 14 % it is a lot, lot worse in Greece and Spain. Bearing in mind, however, the precarious nature of youth employment, plus the 14% unemployment rate, then the huge support for Corbyn amongst young people is very understandable. Tessa Jowell is part of the unacceptable face of Labour politics and it will be easy for the Tories to write her off as yesterday's woman.

  • 17 August 2015 at 1:32pm
    Rikkeh says:
    This article seems to ignore the supplementary vote angle of Mayoral Elections. If left wing voters prefer to cast their first preferences for the Greens, Lib Dems or Respect, they're free to cast their second preferences for Labour.

    That is unless those voters are gripped by some Leninist fever that means they want the Conservatives to win in order to make things worse for voters and drive them leftward, or "fail to see the difference between Labour and Conservative" (however much it's smaller than you want it to be, it's always there).