Labour split over union influence in London mayoral election

This Saturday at a special closed-doors event, Labour's London mayoral candidates will each take turns to compete for an endorsement from Labour's biggest union backers Unite.

One by one, Sadiq Khan, David Lammy, Tessa Jowell, Diane Abbott and Christian Wolmar will field questions on issues ranging from transport to London's hospitals.

Members of the public will not be allowed to attend and there will be no write-up of their performances in the Evening Standard. But how the candidates do could make all the difference between whether or not they ultimately end up walking through the doors of City Hall.

Winning endorsements from Unite and other afilliated unions could be crucial to winning the selection. Although open to supporters for a small fee, Labour's selection process will be overwhelmingly decided by existing Labour members and union affiliates. Unite's London regional office alone represents over 300,000 members and they have been working hard to encourage their members to take part.

Earlier this week, frontrunner (and leading Blairite candidate) Tessa Jowell, received a cold call from Unite asking who she planned to support for mayor. She helpfully pointed out that she planned to support herself. Asked about the calls yesterday a spokesperson for Unite told that it was part of a consultation and awareness-raising process with their members.

However, Labour's decision to delay the selection until September will increase the influence of the unions who will now be able to sign up many more of their members as Labour affiliates. Some of Jowell's supporters are worried about this influence. Jowell told the Evening Standard yesterday that she was "surprised" by the decision but added that she would "have to live with it".

"I was surprised because I wasn’t aware it was an option being considered," she said.

"But I’m sanguine about it. I don’t think the decision was taken with any ulterior motive."

Speaking to, Labour's London chairman Len Duvall told that the delay was "a poor decision".

"The party has been gearing up for this for months and we suddenly hear it is being delayed. I think this is a poor decision and a missed opportunity when the winning candidate could be getting out there and persuading Londoners. We can't afford to be complacent."

Other candidates believe the delay could actually help them.

"It will give me the chance to add a few more miles to the 2,000 I have already cycled on my campaign trail!" insurgent candidate Christian Wolmar said.

"More time gives the people of London more say and more of a chance to get to know the candidates."

David Lammy and Diane Abbott also say they are both relaxed about the delay. One supporter of Lammy told that the delay could also allow more members of the public to take part in the selection and therefore water down any union influence.

But it is Sadiq Khan who perhaps stands to benefit most from the delay. Before the election, Khan long denied any intention of standing for mayor, and has repeatedly criticised others for announcing their own plans. However, behind the scenes Khan has been working hard to win support. When he finally launched his campaign website this week, a search of the website's registration records revealed the domain had been acquired by his election agent last October.

As a result of this low-key campaigning, Khan is now second favourite to win the selection, with former Mayor Ken Livingstone telling earlier this year that he expects the machine behind Khan to win the day.

If that happens it would be in the face of opinion polls which suggest Khan trails well behind Jowell with the London public. Such a result could undermine Khan's chances of winning the subsequent election, just as Ed Miliband's union-backed triumph over his brother ultimately undermined his attempt to win the general election.

But that's a question for another day. Right now the candidates need the support of unions like Unite and their hundreds of thousands of members. How each candidate fares on Saturday could make all the difference.