The inspiration of Tessa Jowell

by Jonathan Todd

In an era of robotic politicians, Tessa Jowell is a magnetic presence. The cause of unprecedented scenes of applause in the Lords. The catalyst to improved cancer services. Her humanity shrines like a beacon, reminding us that politics doesn’t have to disappoint.

There’s nothing like a dame, Peter Mandelson – quoting a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – told the Dulwich and West Norwood (DaWN) summer party after Tessa, our MP, had been made an Order of the British Empire. This might have been the same year that we watched Andy Murray become the first male British Wimbledon champion since 1936. When Murray secured this victory, Tessa punched the air in the house backing on to Dulwich Park that has witnessed many of these annual events.

More immediately after Tessa became a dame, there was a party in the Commons to celebrate this elevation. While the eschewing of political honours exemplified by Keith Hill, Tessa’s sometime neighbouring MP, is impressive, there was also a lot to admire in the big tent assembled for Tessa’s party. From Tony Blair to Ken Livingston, from Kay Burley to the Southwark News, from Seb Coe to Brixton charities, it exemplified Tessa’s capacity to bring diverse people together.

I saw Tessa most closely in a less high-profile context than delivering the Olympics and Sure Start. At GC meetings in a chilly hall in Herne Hill. My decade on the DaWN GC is the only GC that I have known. I wasn’t going to do anything as sober as serve on a GC as a student and I’ve since moved to a CLP (Birmingham Ladywood) that doesn’t have one.

GCs are like wines. The more you experience, the more – if you pay attention – you appreciate. It initially seemed pretty uninviting and tedious. Over time, the personalities, politics and issues revealed themselves. I came to know DaWN through its GC and my understanding of Ladywood is hampered by its lack of a GC.

Ted Knight, leader of Lambeth, the borough in which DaWN partly sits, during its loony phase, sat at the back of the DaWN GC when I was on it. At that time most of the room tended to be against him but he remained a forceful presence. When Mandelson was a councillor in the Lambeth that Knight led, as he wrote in his autobiography, “the atmosphere (at meetings of Labour councillors) was very intimidating. The hard left was not only hard in its politics, it was even harder on those (like Mandelson) who didn’t toe the line.”

“It is Tessa Jowell.” I sat up on my sofa as I heard these words greeting me on my mobile. She was then Paymaster General but the finances she was focusing on were CLP funds and she charmed me into organising a CLP fundraising dinner. Over coming years, we successfully held a number of such. With the likes of Alastair Campbell (ruthlessly effective in swelling CLP coffers as an auctioneer), Alan Johnson (knows how to tell a joke) and David Miliband (who I saw deliver a tired after dinner speech to another CLP when Foreign Secretary but who delivered a speech with aplomb to DaWN as a backbencher after 2010, taking his seat to rapturous applause with a satisfied look that said, “that’s what you could have had”).

With Tessa as our MP, we got things done as a CLP and had a good time while doing so. The political weather has since become more hospitable to Knight, who, in spite of his advancing years, has probably become an even more resolute GC presence than when he periodically duelled with Tessa, who would politely meet his criticisms of the Labour government and carry the room with her.

In the intervening period, as Labour has changed, and I moved to Birmingham, Tessa has remained Tessa: relentlessly finding the positives in every person and circumstance that she encounters. In this sense, if not in others, she is a soft left contrast to Knight’s hard left: meeting people where they are, not where dogmas say they ought to be.

I don’t want to overstate how well I know Tessa but what I do know is that how she is regarded as a national figure – an optimist, a can-do operator, a people person – is exactly consistent with how she conducted herself as a local MP. From great political heights, others have lost sight of their local bases. Miliband, for example, it was reported, bequeathed South Shields a voter contact rate (the percentage of people in the constituency for whom the party has a record of voting preference) as low as 0.2% – or roughly 100 people. As diligent in DaWN as she was in Whitehall, full of warmth for the powerful and the powerless, not so Tessa.

“If she were male, then Tessa Jowell would be a grandee by now, an elder statesman,” wrote Gaby Hinsliff last year. “She’d be reverently summoned on to the Today programme from time to time.” While we haven’t achieved gender equality (not least on Today), Tessa gave a compelling Today performance last week. Hopefully, through improved cancer services, this helps to move us toward a more substantive achievement than those typically secured by grandees.

Tessa remains an inspiration, as she has been at every stage and level of her political career.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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4 Responses to “The inspiration of Tessa Jowell”

  1. Matt T says:

    Tony Blair wrote in his autobiography that by the end of his time in office the only true Blairites in his cabinet were Tessa Jowell and John Reid. I’m not a New Labour fan in general but I much prefer the Tessa Jowell aspect (pragmatic, socially and economically liberal) than the John Reid (authoritarian and controlling).

  2. Anne says:

    Well said.
    It certainly puts silly disagreements into perspective.

  3. Tony says:

    I wish her well in her health battle.

    Politically, however, I think she was wrong on so many issues.

  4. Mike Homfray says:

    I wish her well in her current situation. That doesn’t mean I’m going to pretend that I support her politics. I don’t

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