Obituary: Dame Tessa Jowell

13 May 2018

Tessa Jowell’s politics have gone out in fashion in recent years – she was a strong believer in New Labour and its leader, once reportedly saying she would jump under a bus for Tony Blair.


And as a cabinet minister she was arguably responsible for the worst of what some derided as New Labour’s liberal authoritarianism, presiding over controversial social and cultural regulations and enforcements.


Yet Jowell’s warm and enthusiastic personality ensured she would be remembered for some of modern Britain’s unquestionable achievements.


Jowell was born in London in 1947 as the eldest of three children, growing up in Aberdeen where she later studied at university. She returned to the capital as a young woman and qualified as a psychiatric social worker, working in the sector for many years.


Jowell always believed social reform could only be brought about through politics, into which she entered at a council level in 1971.


Just over twenty years later, after previously unsuccessful attempts to get nominated and elected, Jowell became the MP for Dulwich and West Norwood during Labour’s 1992 electoral calamity, a loss which convinced her of the need for a radical shake-up in the party’s approach.


When John Smith died in 1994, she was one of the first to argue Tony Blair should succeed him, and remained a prominent supporter of his throughout Labour’s thirteen years in government. With Blair the admiration was reciprocated. ‘She is a great person, Tessa,’ he once wrote, ‘just a gem.’


Her personality was no doubt why she was often given some of the toughest briefs in government, dealing with legislation which reshaped licensing hours, tobacco and gambling restrictions and broadcasting laws. New Labour’s repressive approach as continuous criticised throughout its time in office, and a lesser minister would no doubt have cracked under the pressure she faced.


But Jowell was made of stronger stuff. She survived the Ecclestone Scandal, the first controversy to plague New Labour, when it was revealed Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone had donated £1m to the Labour Party. Jowell had spent the previous six months arguing Formula One motor racing should be exempt from a ban on tobacco advertising.


And when it was revealed her husband David Mills had allegedly accepted £350,000 from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in exchange for false testimonies, Mills and Jowell split in order to save her career, before eventually reconciling six years later.


But Jowell is perhaps best remembered for her enthusiastic support of London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, exerting considerable pressure on Blair to help. When Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister in 2007 Jowell was demoted from the cabinet, but remained responsible for the Olympics until their eventual success in 2012.


As Health Minister Jowell had the chance to bring about the social change she had once yearned for at the highest level, introducing maternity and paternity leave, health targets and, most notably, the Sure Start programme for improved childcare.


Jowell stood down as an MP at the 2015 general election in order to campaign to become Labour’s candidate for London Mayor, although despite being an early favourite she lost out to Sadiq Khan.


In the same year she joined the House of Lords, in which she received a standing ovation last January for a speech about the brain cancer with which she’d recently been diagnosed, urging more to be done in order to tackle the disease.


‘It’s very tough, but it’s fine,’ Jowell said. ‘One of the things I really hope will happen is that people who live with this everyday… can have a new way of having a different day and being who they are. I think there is much more we can all do. I hope that will happen.’


Dame Tessa Jowell is survived by her husband, their two children, and three step-daughters.

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