Tessa Jowell tells Patrick Macfarlane about her optimism and uncertainty as a new chapter opens for Labour – and Britain
|Tessa Jowell campaigning in West Norwood, 2010 -|
It is clear that she really does regard the coming months as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape Labour’s agenda, admitting that the current spirit of debate “was rather lacking in the last three years [of government].”
Despite her enthusiasm, though, Jowell only seems to have so much time for some of these ‘other strands’. I ask her what she thinks about the idea, being mooted in some circles, of making additional state borrowing – to fund, for instance, a mass house-building programme – part of the Labour manifesto in 2015.
“I think we should not allow ourselves to reach for the conventional answers, and the conventional solutions,” she says. “Because I think that if we do that, we will staunch this flow of creativity. So I would like us to focus very much on ideas and solutions.”
She pauses, and then adds, for clarity: “Policy beyond the state.”
Jowell adds that the left-wing economic historian RH Tawney “was right when he said – loosely quoted – how surprising it was that only Labour encouraged its people to seek more from government and do less themselves.”
“I think this is one of the things that blue Labour reflects… I was doing one of my regular community meetings on Saturday, and we had a long discussion about how, beyond the reach of government, you might create more affordable housing,” she says.
“And it generated a lot of really interesting ideas about what might be the incentive to encourage people to move out of their homes that were too large (the perverse effect of the single person discount) and so forth.”
Given this apparent move away from Labour’s agenda towards the end of its time in government, I ask if she still has the same degree of affection for those years, or whether perhaps subsequent developments have made her think about the period a little differently?
“I still have tremendous affection for those years,” she asserts. “I think one of the most dangerous things is to have a kind of ‘Year Zero’ approach to what we did in government, because a lot of the pain that people are suffering now is that they’re losing the sources of support and services that were part of that time.”
I am puzzled. How does this square with a desire for ‘policy beyond the state’. Jowell’s answer, it seems, reflects an acceptance of a very changed economic landscape:
“I think experience suggests that we have to get used to slower rates of growth than perhaps was the case ten years ago,” she says.
“The key thing is to be much more perceptive about policies and decisions that are right at particular times. And the policies of 1997 and 2001 are not the policies of for now, any more than the policies of now will be the policies for 2015.
“That’s part of the dynamic nature of government: that the very act of being in government creates change, and creates change to which subsequent governments must be able to react.”
And her praise of New Labour’s record is not unqualified. When I ask about its approach to the financial services sector, she agrees that “deregulation has to take account of the broader public interest – and actually, neither Gordon Brown, nor Tony Blair, factored the public interest and the degree of public cost into the banditry of the banks.”
So a distinct shift from neo-liberal orthodoxy, although it isn’t clear how Jowell sees civil society filling the gaps that the state will leave. And what about blue Labour’s take on communities, relationships and national identity?
I ask her what she thinks of Labour supporting and celebrating an element of moderate nationalism: “If moderate nationalism is patriotism,” she replies, “an understanding of what it means to be British, and the obligations that being British creates; that it doesn’t turn us into little Englanders who are xenophobic and suspicious of the rest of the world, then I think it’s fine. But I would, frankly, tread very carefully.”
She urges Labour to “take account of the Britain of today, rather than the Britain of thirty years ago. … I regard my Carribean; African; Asian constituents, who have the right to remain here, as every bit as British in the contributions they make, in the aspirations they have, as people who’ve lived here all their lives. And I think that the thing about a lot of this language is that you have to be very careful about the code.”
Jowell says that she knows “there is a strong feeling against the scale of migration”, and that “people should feel at liberty to talk about it”, but “the facts about migration are part of the answer here, which is that migration tends to be cyclical. And that at a time of growth, we’re an attractive country for people to come to; at a time of recession we’re much less attractive.”
She also argues that Labour must “provide a better answer to explaining the upsides of [immigration] to people”. The “paradox” of the 2000s was, she says, “that people were both delighted to be able to get Polish plumbers to come and mend their lavatories and their leaking sinks, while at the same time feeling deeply embittered that those Polish plumbers are taking the jobs that their sons might otherwise take.”
I put it to her that attitudes are greatly affected by where people are on the income scale, with those at the bottom (who faced a net negative impact on wages and employment from the accession of the eight new European Union nations) having more antipathy that those at the top, for whom migrant workers were a source of cheap labour that helped to keep their own salaries high.
For Jowell, “skills quotas are an important part of the discussion”. But “to lay it out in all its brutality,” she adds, “our economy would be fatally weakened if we weren’t a member of the European Union, with access to the markets – the trading markets – of the European Union, that account for something like 70% of our exports. So there you are: that’s the complexity.”
I end by asking her about the “national mission” espoused by Ed Miliband in his speech to the Progress Annual Conference: what does she see as filling that need? What can people unite behind when Britain is demonstrably losing economic and cultural influence in the world?
“I certainly think that a combination of the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the Olympics will give that sense; a sense of optimism and of national pride,” she says. “Will it last? No, it won’t last. [But] we’ll be a different country after the Olympics, and I think that just for a while afterwards, cynicism will be held at bay.”
I’ve been struck by how little Jowell has had to say about the coalition; about the impact of its policies on people’s finances, and whether or not they risk making our woes significantly worse. But her outlook on the future seems to be based on an awareness that the ‘bottom line’ will be only part of the equation for any future Labour government.
There is, she says, “a contemporary longing for traditionalism, for small-c conservatism; the celebration of a sense of place; the importance of identity; the importance of reciprocity and the sense of belonging.”
And Tawney’s musing on Labour, she says, “is a profoundly provocative and stimulating challenge; one that I’m giving, myself, quite a lot of thought to at the moment, as we look at redefining the relationship between the state – whether national government or local government – and communities and individuals.”
“Get[ting] people to think about their own solutions… that’s a richness that we really haven’t mined for a very long time.”