Tessa, my friend, knew how to get things done…
Former Health Secretary and Holborn and St Pancras MP Frank Dobson pays tribute to Dame Tessa Jowell
17 May, 2018 — By Frank Dobson
Frank Dobson and Tessa Jowell with Camden councillors Sally Gimson and Nasim Ali
TESSA Jowell and I were elected Camden councillors in 1971 and remained good and loyal friends ever since.
At first I found her well-spoken, good fun and charming. But there was much more to her than that. This was first revealed to me at a rowdy public meeting in Camden Town.
I was leader of the council. She was running social services. As she was speaking, a well-known local load-mouth shouted that she was “a middle class wanker”. Her instant response to the heckler was “I may be middle class but I am neither more nor less of a wanker than you are”.
A stunned silence was followed by roars of laughter. The meeting was saved and I saw for the first time the rod of steel in Tessa that she was often to deploy, but seldom display, in the decades that followed.
And she needed that steel.
The success of some of the projects she promoted has rightly got most attention in the recent tributes to her. But her political life was not plain sailing. That was because she had a fundamental commitment to social justice and the need to set right the wrongs which afflict the worst-off. Such ideas have never been popular with many political opponents and much of the news media.
So Tessa was just the right person to be made the minister of public health in the new Labour government in 1997. We wanted to make a start in changing the age-old truth that poor people are ill more often and die sooner.
Tessa was good at putting across policies aimed to right such wrongs. Although mocked by all and sundry as the personification of the “nanny state”, she got her head down and stuck at it – making a start on dietary issues like sugar and fats and on smoking.
The only time I saw Tessa “lose it” was when it was revealed that Downing Street wanted us to go easy over the commitment to ban cigarette sponsorship of sports.
I was angry. Tessa, who was rightly due to receive an anti-smoking award, was mortified and shaken. Eventually the anti-smoking policies prevailed and worked.
Her personal commitment to practical measures to promote social justice was next displayed to great effect in the Sure Start programme intended to give a better pre-school start to children from badly-off families.
It’s ironic that some of the people today wishing to be associated with her memory have actually been responsible for undermining that good work. Until her recent fatal illness her most famous achievement was the 2012 Olympic Games. There can be no doubt the games would never have been held in London without her far-sighted commitment and her political skills both public and private.
Tessa Jowell visits the Roundhouse during its refurbishment
Again it is worth pointing out that the Olympic project was not a push-over, with prominent critics denouncing the cost and predicting an embarrassing shambles. But nothing succeeds like success and it’s now portrayed by the same people as a national triumph.
Of course, as part of her social commitment Tessa aimed for an Olympic legacy which would lead to greater sporting opportunities and involvement, particularly among the worst-off. So far that legacy has fallen short of Tessa’s aims but that is the responsibility of those now in charge, not her.
Tessa succeeded in much of what she did because she worked very hard and was far more worldly than many people realised. She knew how to get things done.
Her insightful deployment of her talents and charm enabled her on some issues to secure support across the political and non-political spectrum. But she remained as Labour when I last spoke to her this year as she was when I first spoke to her in 1971.
When Tessa told me about her brain tumour, I was more than upset than she sounded. Having lost close friends Mo Mowlam and Robin Cook, the thought of losing Tessa was chilling. But Tessa went on being Tessa, trying every possible way to defeat her own affliction and at the same time using it to promote the need for more research, better diagnosis and ultimately effective treatment.
She hoped it might help her but she was determined it should benefit all sufferers whatever happened to her. So the person addressing the House of Lords, lobbying the prime minister, speaking on radio and TV was David’s wife, Jessie and Matthew’s mum – Tessa being Tessa. She hadn’t stopped being Tessa. The new funds and research projects will mean she will never stop being Tessa.
The book of Ecclesiasticus contains the words “And some there be which have no memorial”. Tessa Jowell’s life and work made sure those words will never apply to her.
Frank Dobson is the former MP for Holborn and St Pancras