Glenda Jackson’s admirable dedication to fairness – Simon Fletcher


“In standing up to the party leadership on this matter, she took the side of members’ reasonable expectation of a fair process. Beyond the membership, Londoners too had a right not to be taken for granted.”

By Simon Fletcher

There is nothing to add here to what has been written and said about Glenda Jackson’s outstanding acting and her contribution to theatre, cinema and television. Others are far better placed to do that.

But there is one point about her as a politician that deserves mention.

In the late 1990s Glenda Jackson ran to be Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London.

Without rehearsing the whole saga here, Labour’s mayoral selection involved a fierce debate over whether and how to stop Ken Livingstone becoming the candidate.

Until the Labour leadership dropped its stated position that the selection would be held on the basis of one member one vote – and instead imposed an electoral college – controversy centred around whether Labour would simply block Livingstone altogether. (The electoral college was introduced as a mechanism to elevate MPs’, MEP’s and Assembly candidates’ golden votes over those of members and trade union members).

During 1998 and 1999 the names of potential candidates came and went. When Glenda Jackson’s candidacy emerged it seemed quite possible that the leadership could congregate around her. So important was Glenda Jackson’s participation in the Labour race that when Londoners voted ‘yes’ in the referendum to restore devolution, the Standard splashed with ‘Glenda v Ken.’

Ultimately, the leadership threw everything into the late Frank Dobson’s candidacy. This was not without its glitches. A Labour Party panel to decide the shortlist did not immediately resolve whether to place Ken Livingstone on the ballot, dissatisfied with his answers on the planned partial privatisation of the Tube (or PPP.) I have a particularly vivid memory of being stood with Ken Livingstone and Glenda Jackson on College Green as the afternoon turned dark, the two candidates waiting to do media and for some clarity on what was happening – with Glenda Jackson becoming increasingly sharp and passionate in her frustration at was going on with the selection process.

Glenda Jackson did something very important in the ensuing Labour selection campaign, which she did not have to do and which highlighted her honest approach to politics.

Labour’s process was mired in the fact that it was being fixed. There were many controversies but one of the most flagrant was that Frank Dobson’s was the only campaign had the data for the whole of the Greater London Labour Party membership. MEPs, by virtue of representing the whole of London, had the full membership list: through this mechanism the Frank Dobson campaign was able to contact all members whilst the other campaigns could not. The sheer blatant unfairness developed into a damaging controversy that reinforced a narrative of New Labour ‘control freak’ machine politics that had built up in the early years of the Blair government.

The longer the leadership refused to level the playing field, the worse it got for them in reputational terms.

Although the Labour leadership was willing to give an advantage one candidate, its impact was not simply felt by the other campaigns. It was also an infringement of the right of the membership to participate in a fair campaign that treated London members and the wider public with respect. Voters expect to participate in good faith.

Glenda Jackson stood up to all this.

She took the unprecedented step of submitting a lengthy dossier of complaints to the party about the blatant unfairness of the whole process, jointly with the Livingstone campaign. Finalised and released around Christmas of 1999, the two campaigns’ unusual combined objection added another layer to the controversy and meant it continued over into the new year. A spokesperson for Glenda’s campaign told the Independent: ‘This is a course of action we take very reluctantly, but it has become quite clear over this week that the rules are continually being flouted and that now … people are actually bragging about the way the rules are being broken.’

Labour sources dismissed the complaint as ‘political’; but each rejection of a level playing field showed why it was necessary to push back, and demonstrated how admirable it was for Glenda Jackson to stick to her principles.

Glenda Jackson stated at the time:

‘Whoever is selected as our candidate has to be seen to have been selected through a process that is both free and fair. If the selection is seen to be tainted then it makes losers of us all.’

That was right.

From that time, these two simultaneous letters to the Guardian from Glenda Jackson and Ken Livingstone show how farcical it was: two of the most high-profile Labour figures in the country having to clarify that the basics of fair campaigning were absent.

Glenda Jackson is deserving of tremendous respect and appreciation for how she handled this whole matter. She did not have to take a stand. She could have kept her head down during the selection. She certainly did not have to speak with such candour and directness. In standing up to the party leadership on this matter, she took the side of members’ reasonable expectation of a fair process. Beyond the membership, Londoners too had a right not to be taken for granted.

When Panorama devoted an entire episode to Labour’s selection fall-out, ‘The Blair Mayor Project,’ Glenda Jackson told the BBC: “How dare if this has happened, these people treat with such contempt the membership of this party without whose work no single Labour MP would be sitting on those green benches. It is offensive beyond words that people would be cheated in that way. And as I say, I pray to God we are wrong and it hasn’t, but if it has then it is very very serious indeed.”

The full transcript of the Panorama programme is here.

Through her stance, Glenda Jackson defended some fundamental principles over the health of Labour’s internal culture and processes.

What I took from this time was Glenda Jackson’s extremely dogged commitment to fairness and her tenacity in standing her ground.

These admirable qualities were shown repeatedly during her time as an MP.

Condolences to her loved ones at this time.

Featured image: Glenda Jackson In Conversation with John Wilson at the BFI Southbank, Tuesday 5th July 2022. Photo credit: Raph_PH under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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