Tuesday, May 22News That Matters

Tessa Jowell obituary: 'A trailblazer for women in politics'


Tessa JowellTessa Jowell.REUTERS/Neil Hall

Tessa Jowell, the former Labour cabinet minister, who helped to secure the 2012 Olympics for London, has died at the age of 70.

Diagnosed with a glioblastoma in May 2017, a rare, high-grade tumour and malignant cancer that can spread quickly to other parts of the brain and spine, it came without warning and with none of the symptoms. Stoic, Jowell displayed passion, determination and a sense of mission, which had been the hallmark of her political career, in a bid to change the way cancer was dealt with.

In a speech to the House of Lords in January, she spoke of her shock diagnosis, her treatment and its impact, but was once again showing compassion and fighting for others. She appealed for new cancer treatments on the NHS and for sufferers to have the ability and choice to switch treatment if one was not working and be free to accept the risks and side effects.

She ended her speech with words from the poet Seamus Heaney: “I’m not afraid. I feel very clear about my sense of purpose, and what I want to do, and how do I know how long [my life is] going to last. I’m certainly going to do whatever I can to make sure it is a very long time.” Colleagues rose to give a rare standing ovation.

Watch Jowell’s House of Lords speech:

Baroness Tessa Jowell has died aged 70.

This is the moving speech she gave about her fight against cancer months before her death. pic.twitter.com/r3hze8hH4a

— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) May 13, 2018

In a political career spanning more than four decades and as a minister in three consecutive Blair administrations, Jowell was a trailblazer for women in politics battling the prejudices of the male-dominated 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and was an essentially non-sectarian politician, with friends across the ideological divisions within her own party and in others too. She always maintained: “I hope always my politics are the politics of aspiration, ambition, possibility and the future.”

Despite encountering a number of lows in her career, including the bribery scandal surrounding her husband and Silvio Berlusconi, super casinos and the constant haranguing by the Tory tabloids, she will perhaps be best known for, unexpectedly, helping bring the Olympics to London, but then having to deal with the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London 24 hours after the Olympics announcement was made in July 2005. Through it all, she remained true to her beliefs and loyal to her friends.

British Olympic Association chairman Lord Sebastian Coe said she was the “political driving force” behind the games bid and “an inseparable part of their ultimate success.”

With both parents working, Jowell was used to assuming responsibility, never more so than when aged seven both her parents contracted an infectious form of hepatitis and the children either became boarders at school or were farmed out. Jowell was educated at the independent St Margaret’s School for Girls before progressing, aged 17, to the University of Aberdeen, where, although not fulfilling her early ambitions to follow in her father’s footsteps as a doctor, she read arts, psychology and sociology. Upon graduation, desperate to leave home, she studied for an MA in social administration at the University of Edinburgh

After a brief spell as a social worker, initially working in the Craigmillar area of Edinburgh, Jowell moved to Lambeth, south London, as a childcare officer before training at Goldsmiths College, University of London, as a psychiatric social worker. She subsequently worked at the Maudsley Hospital, before switching to the voluntary sector and becoming assistant director of the mental health charity Mind.

Tessa JowellREUTERS/Neil Hall

Concurrently, she had joined the Labour party at 22 and married Camden councillor Roger Jowell in 1970. Her socialism emerged from an unusual source. She once told an interviewer, “Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus moved me hugely when I was 14, with its themes of exploitation, courageous revolt and the heroism of the slave uprising.”

A year later, she was on the path of electoral politics and was a surprise victor when elected a Labour councillor to represent Swiss Cottage on Camden Borough Council; not long after, aged 25, she became chair of the council’s social services Committee.

Bitten by the political bug, she was determined to become an MP; she contested the Ilford North by-election in 1978 following the Labour MP Mille Miller’s sudden death. A traditionally conservative seat, Jowell lost Labour’s slender majority but it was a watershed moment for her.

It had been an unpleasant experience, not solely because she lost; politics was becoming polarised and she was attacked by both the far right National Front and, as a pro-choice believer, the anti-abortion lobby. “I could just see the Labour vote bleeding away. I knew we were losing, and I knew we were losing not just in this by-election but we were losing generally, we were actually losing the country,” she said.

Meanwhile, the press had camped outside her front door for reasons other than pure politics; Jowell, having left her first husband, was living with the lawyer David Mills, who had left his wife; the couple subsequently married, as Labour was about to enter its wilderness years.

The following year at the general election, which saw Margaret Thatcher sweep to power, Jowell stood again in Ilford North, again unsuccessfully. Further attempts were made but without luck, though her determination saw her through more than a decade of Labour local activism while the party floundered at Westminster.

Tessa JowellBritain’s Prince Harry (2nd L) holds a kangaroo mascot given by Australian athletes next to MP Tessa Jowell (L), Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Mayor of the Olympic Village Sir Charles Allen (R), during a visit to the accommodation for British athletes in the Athletes Village at Olympic Park in Stratford, east London July 31, 2012.REUTERS/John Stillwell/Pool

Over the years, Camden Council became known as one of the centres of “loony Labour.” Subsequently, Jowell became one of the standard-bearers opposing the often uncompromising hard left.

Over the same period, the Labour recovery began and the Jowell-Mills north London dinner table became one of the fixed points for like-minded Blairites – such as Margaret Hodge, Harriet Harman, Baroness Jay, David Blunkett and the Blairs themselves – to meet.

Jowell’s fortitude paid off and 13 years after her first attempt for parliament she was nominated as the Labour candidate for Dulwich in the 1992 general election. She recalled devoting herself “single-mindedly to meeting as many people as I could. It was toe-curling, turning up unannounced and promoting yourself.” It worked however, and Jowell beat the longstanding Conservative incumbent Gerald Bowden with over a two thousand majority, although John Major defied the odds and stretched the Tories’ winning streak to four consecutive general election victories.

In parliament, Jowell gravitated towards the front bench as an opposition spokesperson on health, an opposition whip and the women’s portfolio, before returning to the shadow health team in 1996. She enhanced her managerial reputation while honing her political skills – a direct, thoughtful style without ever being patronising.

Following Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide election victory, Jowell was appointed minister for public health. However, from the earliest days of the Blair government, she became embroiled in controversy after she was forced to justify the exemption of Formula One from a ban on tobacco advertising. The exemption followed the £1m donation to the Labour Party by Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone. Furthermore, Mills was a director of the company that owned the Benetton racing team. Jowell always maintained that she advised against the government meeting Ecclestone. Despite a pre-election pledge to be the “scourge” of the tobacco industry, she chose not to resign.

In 1999, she moved across to the Department for Education and Employment as minister for welfare to work, equal opportunities and women. She was rewarded for her loyalty to Blair, reportedly saying she would “jump under a bus” for him, after Labour’s 2001 election victory, with promotion to the cabinet as secretary of state for culture, media and sport, replacing the sacked Chris Smith and leapfrogging rivals like her friend Margaret Hodge.

One of her first tasks was to manage the future of television, in particular digital broadcasting: thus she blocked the BBC’s plans for BBC3 on the grounds that they were insufficiently different from commercial offerings, and imposed extra conditions on BBC News 24 after it was criticised on the same grounds by the Lambert Report.

Ed Balls Ed Miliband Tessa JowellFormer Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (C), flanked by former shadow finance spokesman Ed Balls (L) and MP Tessa Jowell, speaks during a special session of parliament in London April 10, 2013.REUTERS/UK Parliament

Jowell’s reputation rose when she became responsible for coordinating support for the families of the British victims of the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York. One ministerial colleague said: “After 9/11, she was very good. She is a people’s politician in that sense. She has a genuine empathy. Some get buffeted by the pressures of high office, but Tessa has never lost that.”

Two years later, she ushered in the era of Ofcom, a new media regulator, borne from the Communications Act 2003. It also relaxed regulations on ownership of British television stations, though, following a rebellion in the House of Lords, a “public interest” test was introduced as a compromise.

Further controversy dogged her time as culture secretary. Plans to introduce flexible drinking hours and to build Britain’s first super-casino were widely criticised and unpopular with the Labour Party, but Jowell stood firm and remained loyal. In the runup to the bill, Jowell dismissed much of the criticism as being elitist, remarking: “Opponents of the government’s gambling reforms are snobs who want to deny ordinary people the right to bet.” Former Labour welfare minister Frank Field thought her comments were crass, declaring: “I think this whole New Labour line that you insult people rather than engage in argument is deeply disturbing.”

Both policies have long since become a way of life, though they were immediately reviewed when Gordon Brown took over as prime minister in June 2007.

Additionally, she handled complaints about how and what National Lottery funding was used for and later oversaw the restructuring of the arts funding system, but following a cut in her department’s budget, tax credits for British film production were lost too.

Shortly before Brown’s reshuffle, Jowell had introduced a new governance system for the BBC, the BBC Trust, replacing the Board of Governors. By 2012, the BBC Trust was shown to be “not fit for purpose”, leading to the resignation of the director general.

Within weeks of becoming PM, Brown withdrew her job as culture secretary, replacing it with a new post as minister for the Olympics and London so she could attend cabinet but not as a full member.

Jowell ran into difficulties when her husband Mills, a corporate lawyer, came under investigation in 2006 from Italian authorities, who suspected him of money laundering and tax fraud following the receipt of £340,000 from Berlusconi in the 1990s. As culture secretary, she was investigated but exonerated of breaking the ministerial code. Within months, the couple had separated and Mills was later convicted of accepting a bribe to give false evidence and sentenced to four and half years, though this was later overturned under the statute of limitations.

The couple never divorced and hoped “to restore their relationship over time.” In September 2012, Jowell said on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme that she was seeing Mills regularly, adding that they had “reached a state of stability which I never thought possible.”

Tessa JowellREUTERS/Andrewv Winning

After nearly a quarter of a century in parliament and serving as a minister throughout Labour’s three terms in office, Jowell stepped down prior to the 2015 general election, declaring to her constituency party that it was “the hardest decision I have ever taken” but that it was time to “give somebody else the chance to take the next steps forward.”

She was made a dame in 2012 for services to both politics and charity, having established the Sure Start children’s centre programme while a minister. She became a life peer and baroness in 2015.

In September 2015, she was unsuccessful in becoming the Labour Party’s official candidate for the 2016 election for mayor of London, coming second to Sadiq Khan in the contest of six candidates.

The following year she served as a senior leadership fellow at Harvard lecturing in the Department of Health Policy and Management. Jowell also served on the advisory board of the Ministerial Leadership in Health Programme, a joint initiative between her teaching college and the John F Kennedy School of Government.

Jowell is survived by her husband, their two children and three stepchildren.

Baroness Tessa Jane Helen Douglas Jowell, politician, born 17 September 1947, died 12 May 2018.

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