by David Butler
When is a husting not a husting? When it is a Progress Campaign for a Labour Majority event on winning in London. That all the invited panellists, including the curiously absent Sadiq Khan, are considered potential nominees for Mayor of London was just pure coincidence.
The event was less a tale of two Londons (or One London Labour or whatever today’s vogue is) but of two de Blasios. David Lammy and Diane Abbott sought this mantle both through reference to New York’s Mayor-elect and through the language and policies on offer. Lammy provide a toned down version of de Blasio’s message, whilst Abbott raised the rhetorical and policy stakes, offering a clear left-populist platform. This, and her potential support from the remnants of Ken’s old machine, makes her a serious contender within a party and electorate to the left of the national norm. Even Andrew Adonis and Tessa Jowell, neither of whom particularly fit the de Blasio mould, referenced “two cities” and “One London” respectively.
However, in many ways, it felt like a London housing policy seminar that happened to have a different title. Both Abbott and Lammy announced support rent regulation, albeit with Lammy obfuscating by calling for “fair rents”. Lammy subsequently redeemed himself with an eminently sensible proposal to build housing on the Green Belt. Jowell warned about the impact of the mansion tax on “asset rich but cash poor” families, a rather surprising move in the circumstances; worrying about those who do well out Britain’s over-inflated housing market should not be high up her priority list. As expected, Adonis had the more innovative ideas proposing to explore shared equity schemes and a “housing bank” to take a stake in future developments in order to prevent land banking.
Jobs and transport were more peripheral issues. A transport question saw wide criticism of bus projects of Boris with Abbott pledging a fare freeze in her first year in office. Aside from Adonis enthusing about the potential of HS2 and Crossrail 2, there was little detail on this area. Adonis wisely tried to combine his message on housing with a message on jobs, especially youth unemployment; this was drowned out by the barrage of housing-related questions. As a former transport secretary and a man who can inspire passion about building bridges (literally), it is clear that an Adonis mayoralty would be highly competent and policy-heavy. However, he need to convince that he can actually win, given his last electoral victory came before some of his supporters were even born.
It is perhaps worth remembering that the election of a majority Conservative government or another Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition would leave the next Mayor unable to make the reforms they desire. Only with a strong councillor base in 2014 helping to deliver a majority Miliband administration in 2015 can the many worthy policies debated be enacted by a future Labour Mayor.
The event lacked a clear winner, although Jowell impressed far less than one would have expected; her opening speech felt rather flat. She is known to have an offer to teach at Harvard and is clearly still weighing up her options, like the absent shadow justice secretary. If she wants to avoid losing out internally to Adonis in the stakes to be the main centre-right candidate, she needs to make a decision relatively soon.
There was a feeling of freshness about these discussions, the first of the post-Ken era.
The party can look forward to a vigorous debate between experienced, high quality candidates in the run up to the selection contest (be it by primary or otherwise). However, if you aren’t turned on by housing policy, you may want to sit this election out.
David Butler is a Labour party activist