Few politicians have been remembered with the high respect of Baroness Tessa Jowell. Since her death this weekend, tributes to the former Cabinet Minister have poured in from across the political divide.
Senior Tories like PM Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson seem to be mourning her loss just as much as those from her own party. This is the consequence of Jowell’s rejection of tribalism in politics, a quality that is sadly absent from today’s front benches.
Dame Tessa Jowell’s life was not lived in vain.
She won her spot in Parliament in 1992, during Labour’s period of opposition. By the time of Blair’s victory in 1997, she had held numerous titles including opposition whip and shadow minister for women.
In government, her list of credentials continued to expand.
During the early years of New Labour she was made culture, media and sport secretary, a department she controlled while also being minister for women. During the Brown years, she held the positions of minister for the olympics, paymaster general, minister for London, and finally minister for the cabinet office.
Her notable achievements in government included a successful bid for London to host the 2012 Olympics. Even when the Brown government fell in 2010, she became the shadow minister for the event and continued to play a central role in its organisation.
Another achievement of her political will was the Sure Start programme. Announced in 1998, the initiative tried to provide the best possible childcare and early education for young people in the UK, while also focussing on health and family support.
A report into its success found a decrease in household chaos, a reduction in negative parenting techniques, and a reported increase in general life satisfaction. While there were criticisms of Sure Start, as with any policy, Blair described the programme as one of his government’s greatest achievements.
Since the collapse of New Labour, cuts to public services in the Cameron and May governments have led to the closure of many Sure Start centres. A study has estimated that this number stands currently at over 1000, and pressure now mounts on May to increase funding in Jowell’s memory.
Baroness Jowell’s political achievements are plain to see.
What lies in the wake of those changes however is something far more poignant. Jowell was a frontline politician who cared about people above political factions. Her pragmatic approach to politics and policy had a focus on real lives rather than party loyalty. Such an attitude would be welcomed in today’s Commons.
‘She was never tribal and I think that’s seen in the tributes pouring in from all sides’, remembers Sebastian Coe. He cites particularly Jeremy Hunt’s demand that she be included on the Olympics panel even after Labour lost power in 2010. While that serves as one example, her wider ability to work cross-party should never be forgotten.
This is a virtue absent from today’s Cabinets.
Perhaps you see it in the alliance between Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna, but on the frontbench there is little pragmatic behaviour. Labour remains firmly on the far-left under the pull of those like John McDonnell, while May remains overshadowed by those to her right in the Cabinet and in the wider party (see: Moggmentum).
In such crucial times, a politician with Jowell’s pragmatism and non-tribal attitude to politics could provide a fresh start. Her determination to put people and change at the forefront of her actions should be her lasting legacy in Parliament.
The centre ground is becoming less and less popular in a country (and world) torn apart by great change. Jowell’s legacy on politics preaches the opposite. What we can hope for is that someone with her determination can break through that barrier and take the Commons by storm.