Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Last Word: How Tessa Jowell embodied the notion of a kinder, gentler politics

The minister who shook up Britain’s antiquated licensing laws would not mind anyone having a drink after 11pm tonight raising a glass to her, writes Robert Philpot

It is sign of the respect and affection with which Tessa Jowell was held that her death this week was marked by such extensive and warm media coverage.

Tessa was unusual. A politician who made a genuine connection with members of the public, but who also did not attract the jealousy or ire of her colleagues. As the Labour MP Ian Austin suggested: ‘The amazing thing about Tessa Jowell was that literally no one had a bad word to say about her. Rare in any walk of life, unique in politics.’

On Sunday, I wrote that the secret of her success as a politician stemmed from a simple fact: she liked people, and they liked her in return.

Others who worked with Tessa have also offered their memories of her special qualities. Will Brett, who was involved in her 2015 mayoral campaign, provided a particularly touching and insightful piece.

I recognised instantly his description of a meeting Tessa had with senior officials from the Olympic Park long after the Games were over as she fought to protect the legacy which had always been so central to her vision. By the time they had finished viewing the park’s sporting venues, Will writes, ‘Tessa had already employed her trademark mixture of curiosity, knowledge and humour to great effect. She had connected, and the three men in suits were palpably charmed.’

But then the discussion turned to the topic of affordable housing at the park. I well remember Tessa poring over plans and budgets in meetings when the park was barely a building site. She had a near-obsession with the subject. Seven years later, that passion had clearly abated not one bit. As Will recalls, as soon as Tessa heard the officials begin to tell her how complex and difficult the problem was – she could see through such blether, as she would have described it, in an instant – the mood changed:

For an hour beforehand Tessa had carefully built up a kind of personal capital with these men, and in 30 seconds she spent it all. She warned them that when it came to building the affordable homes Londoners so desperately need, there could be no excuses. And she spelt out exactly what they had to do. The men were bug-eyed and contrite. They agreed to her demands instantly. Tessa had no formal, official power over them. But she had told them what to do, and they were going to do it.

Anyone who worked for Tessa will be able to recall a variant on this encounter. Tessa was not guileless but this was not a calculated act. She always believed that, in politics, principles, process and outcome are inseparable. If you said you believed in decency, respect and civility, that was how you treated people. And that, in turn, produced the best from them.

Tessa’s many achievements have been much remarked upon this week. Not just the Olympics, but everything from Sure Start, an early ministerial accomplishment, to her work on cancer treatment over the past year. I am also sure that, as the minister who shook up Britain’s antiquated licensing laws, she would not mind anyone having a drink after 11pm tonight raising a glass to her.

But perhaps her most important legacy is one that all those engaged in politics – whether they sit around the cabinet table or offer their opinions on social media – might wish to reflect upon: that another way of doing politics is possible. Tessa embodied the notion of a kinder, gentler politics.

Political debate in this country – between and within all parties – might be a little less rancorous and a little more respected by the public if more people engaged in it in the manner that Tessa invariably tried to.

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Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

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