Tessa Jowell plants mayoral flag in London centre ground

London At Night

Having declared that she won’t declare that she’ll be seeking to become Labour’s next London mayoral candidate until after the general election, Tessa Jowell has now made a clear declaration that she would fight to win City Hall from those parts of the capital’s political landscape where what she called “the mainstream majority” reside.

It was not, to strain a joke, declamatory. But its intent was unmistakable.

Jowell’s speech at the London School of Economics on Monday night - her inaugural lecture as Professor of Practice with LSE Cities and the school’s Department of Government - addressed public disenchantment with politics and how devolving power might put that right. It included her first broad canvas sketch of how she would operate as mayor. As expected, she raised her banner on the electoral centre ground once colonised by Tony Blair, the prime minister she served under. More novel was the governance formula she has in mind.

“With the people” should be added to Abraham Lincoln’s famous dictum about government “of the people, for the people and by the people” the new professor said, if faith in politics is to be restored. Times have changed, she went on, since she became a councillor in 1971 when “the purpose of politics on the left was to spend more money than those on the right.” This financial input was seen as more important than what it achieved, she argued, invoking hard left London council leaders of the early 1980s.

Jowell thinks it better, these days, to make a proper job of explaining and delivering the ideals of the Big Society, that damaged David Cameron wheeze which she described as a “progressive ambition”. The former Olympics minister quoted an Olympics volunteer who urged her to understand that people will give a lot “as long as they’re not doing it because the government has told them they have to”. Getting things done meant grounding politics in “community values” and having “the capacity to be empathetic and emotionally intelligent”. The guiding principle should be “subsidiarity” - Euro jargon for “devolution to the most local available level.”

Here, then, was the way the left could adapt and even improve “the nature of social democracy in a time of constrained budgets.” Delivery would be secured through “a three-way interaction between responsible business, civil society and local government.” The first of these, said Jowell, grasps that “social purpose also drives commercial success,” and pays its employees not just the legal minimum wage but a living wage. The second involves community input in the supply of services. The third means “local tiers of government enabling where possible, intervening only when necessary”. She’s right in line with Labour and, indeed, cross-party London on fiscal and social policy devolution, saying that securing this would be the subject of a “key negotiation” with central government. She’d like a hyper-local government layer too in the form of “pop-up parish councils” which could run specific neighbourhood projects for a limited time.

This might be geek fare, but it forms a framework for a political programme that will seek to reach beyond party loyalties and be conducive to constructing coalitions of different interests on common ground. These are basic requirements for getting elected to City Hall and making progress when you get there. Both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have met these in their different ways. Livingstone did it best, which is a big reason why he was a better mayor than Johnson is. Jowell, thanks to her Olympics work, has some of that rogue pair’s personality pull but not as much. She needs to endear herself to potential supporters who might have only vague ideas about what she stands for.

And that’s what she’s been trying to do. Lining up with London Citizens, community activists who’ve championed the London Living Wage, fits the Jowell mayoral template perfectly. Her campaign to slash the “transfer tax” on money sent abroad could appeal to millions in a city where more than a third are foreign-born. By speaking up for localism she’s talking Lib Dem language. By welcoming what she called the “qualified primary” system Labour has chosen for picking its candidate she is endorsing pitching a big tent, but by insisting on “never forgetting the acrid smell of poverty” she invokes the old time Labour religion that London party activists, not terribly Blairite, will want to hear from her.

In her lecture Jowell, the outgoing MP for Dulwich and West Norwood and a former education and health minister, spoke at length about the need for better and less expensive childcare in London and the importance of doing more to help disadvantaged children earlier in life. As mayor, her power in these areas would be limited. But speaking up about such huge yet under-recognised issues could win her many friends.

So she’s preparing the ground, and shrewdly. She’s topping opinion polls and she’s the bookies’ favourite too. She is resilient, experienced and will be hard to beat. In terms of getting things done as mayor, it is easy to imagine that her know-how and person-to-person style would make her difficult to say “no” to. But sceptics will worry that she wouldn’t seek a big or bold enough “yes”.

Jowell rightly stressed the danger to London of the gap between “the very rich and the welfare dependent or in-work poor” and, citing the recent London Thinks study, underlined the near-impossibility of buying a home in London if you are young. She wants local government to take the lead on increasing the rate of house-building. But, of course, the crisis is not the amount of housing in London but the cost of it. In that vital policy area would Jowell’s mayoral way - a sort of “third way” between the two mayors London’s had so far? - extract more affordable homes from hard-nosed property developers, seriously upgrade London’s private rented sector or persuade more Tory boroughs to find more ways to produce more council homes? Unlike other Labour hopefuls, she offered no call for the boroughs to be allowed to borrow more to build.

Jowell’s credentials as a One London candidate are impressive. But only when she and others have told us more about their plans will it be possible to judge if she’s the Labour contender most likely to effect the changes London most needs.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dave Hill, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 9th December 2014 10.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010