Harriet Harman on Tessa Jowell: the 'human face of government'

Posted On: 
16th May 2018

Tessa Jowell’s unique, personal approach pervaded all she did. Her remarkable career is testament to what can be achieved by bringing people together, writes Harriet Harman

“Tessa was an idealist, but one who believed the imperative was to put those ideals into action," Harriet Harman writes

Tessa Jowell was the embodiment of that old Women’s Movement saying “the personal is political”. With her, the personal and the political were completely inter-twined. Her personal passions informed her political objectives. And her political objectives were achieved using her unique personal style. 

Her devotion to her two children and three stepchildren, coupled with her commitment to equality, led her to ensure that Labour’s Sure Start Children’s Centres extended parenting support as well as childcare to families in every neighbourhood. The importance of parenting support is widely accepted now but it was totally innovative then.

Her devotion to the care of her mother was the litmus test by which she judged public services for others. When she was running care of the elderly for Birmingham City Council her mantra was “if it’s not good enough for my mother, it’s not good enough for anyone”. 

She looked at public services from the point of view of the user and their family rather than the organisation providing them. Again, though commonplace now, that was innovative then. 

Recognition of the importance of sport to her own sporty family led her to embark on the quest to bring the 2012 Olympics to London, which she achieved by a combination of her unique personal approach coupled with hard-headed research and steely determination.

But she won Cabinet support for the bid by presenting it as a sporting event which would inspire and give opportunities for young people not just in London but in every region in the country, that would reach into Scotland and Wales and that would raise the Paralympics to new heights.

Her unique personal/political approach pervaded all she did. To work with Tessa was to be showered with attention and support. When, in the early 1980s, she was Chair of the AMA Social Services and I was the newly appointed Shadow Minister for Social Services, she invited me to be the keynote speaker at the AMA Social Services annual conference in Nottingham. By the time the date came around I was pregnant and exhausted. She met me at the station, took me straight to her hotel room to lie on her bed, made me herbal tea and cast an eye over my speech. She answered most of the questions at the Q and A session and put me back on the train to London.

She completely looked after anyone she was working with. She knew when you were at breaking point and how to prop you up. She’d know about your family highs and lows, called daily and sent small, thoughtful gifts.

And it was that personal approach – full of empathy and perfectly suited to bridging the gap between people and the government – which came to the fore when Tony Blair tasked her with being the government minister responsible for the UK citizens bereaved by 9/11, and Gordon Brown tasked her with supporting the victims of 7/7. 

She brought government departments together across Whitehall so that she could deal with the visas, the identification of and repatriating of bodies, the arrangement of counselling, the memorial services, the inquests and everything that the bereaved relatives felt incapable of doing. She wrapped support around the overwhelmed relatives. She was the human, caring face of government.

She befriended people who felt powerless and needed her help – whether as councillor, MP or minister. But she also befriended the powerful and thereby won their support for her progressive causes.

She judged her Labour colleagues by whether they were helping us get nearer to government, and therein lay the genesis of her legendary loyalty to Tony Blair. She wanted to be in government to get things done. She was an idealist, but one who believed the imperative was to put those ideals into action.

She went about her politics never shouting, only smiling. But Tessa was no softie. As MPs in neighbouring constituencies in the London borough of Southwark for 23 years, we went to countless events together and embarked on numerous joint campaigns. Tessa was always warm and courteous when we met the police, schools, hospitals or the council. But when she felt they were obfuscating or letting people down she was tougher than anyone. There was steel in her velvet glove. But it was always in a good cause.

In her early years in the House, when her children were young, she struggled, as I did, with the long nights and routine late sittings of the Commons. Her style at the despatch box was persuasive rather than House rhetoric. But she came to love the House and was then delighted to take her seat in the Lords in 2015

She was thoroughly Labour, first as an activist, then as a local councillor and MP and finally as a Labour peer. But she was never afraid to reach out and work on a cross-party basis and had friends on all sides of the House.

It was so typical that her response to her diagnosis with a terminal brain cancer was not to curl up on her sofa at home but to get out and campaign. She argued for boosting international co-ordination on research and more resources for treatment.  She put brain cancer on the national agenda. She had a voice that people would always listen to and she had a clear sense of the strategy needed.  It is to the government’s credit that they have announced, in her memory, a doubling of funding to £40m over the next five years through the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Research Mission.

Whether it’s because we were Labour women who shared a constituency boundary or, more likely because we shared a hairdresser, we were often mistaken for each other. To this day, people come up to me in the street, they say “I think you’re wonderful. I can’t thank you enough......... for bringing the Olympics to London.”  We all bask in Tessa’s reflected glory.

Her death is a great loss, above all to her devoted family, particularly David and her children Jess and Matthew. But I know they will be strong and united and she will have prepared them for their bereavement.

Tessa won support and brought people to her point of view by being dogged, well-informed and personally attentive.

She wryly asserted that “there’s nothing you can’t achieve in politics so long as you are prepared to forgo the credit”. The outpouring of tributes since the announcement of her death demonstrate that people absolutely do give her the credit for her remarkable achievements.

Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham