Tessa Jowell grew up in Aberdeen, the daughter or a chest consultant father and a radiographer mother. After studying at Aberdeen and Edinburgh universities she took a post as childcare officer for Lambeth and then went on to take a further degree in at Goldsmith’s College qualifying as a psychiatric social worker. She devoted herself to the treatment of mental health from her first appointment as a psychiatric social worker at the Maudesley Hospital in 1974, and two years later she was appointed the assistant director of the mental health charity Mind. In 1986 she spent four years working in community care in Birmingham.
She had entered politics as a Labour councillor in Camden in the 1970’s and was selected to defend the marginal seat of Ilford North in the 1978 by-election. The unpopularity of the Labour government at that time denied her the seat but she was selected to fight the marginally held seat of Dulwich in the General Election in 1992 following fifteen years in local government. She won the seat convincingly although Labour lost overall to John Major’s government. In the 1997 election, following boundary changes with the amalgamation of Dulwich with West Norwood, Tessa Jowell increased her majority and she was one of ‘Blair’s Babes’ in Labour’s landslide election win.
Always a Blairite, she was rewarded for her loyalty and dedication by being appointed Health Minister by Tony Blair. She introduced maternity and paternity leave, health targets and the Sure Start scheme to ameliorate child care. However, she attracted criticism for her support to exempt Formula One motor racing from the government ban on tobacco advertising despite her earlier stand against it. The exemption came as the result of an earlier donation of £1million to the Labour party by Bernie Ecclestone, head of Formula One racing. She was further embarrassed by her lawyer husband’s association, although quite legitimate, as legal advisor with one of teams.
Her career thus had highs and lows. Highs when she as Minister of Culture, Media and Sport where she played a central role in persuading Tony Blair to bid to stage the 2012 Olympic Games in London and seeing it through to a successful conclusion as Minister for the Olympics.. She won praise for her handling of support for victims of both the 2001 terrorist attack in New York and 2005 London bombing atrocity The lows were associated with her plan to establish ‘Super Casinos’ which although rejected by Parliament led to the Licensing Act 2003 which allowed pubs to remain open 24 hours a day. Her career was also tainted by the association of her husband with the Berlusconi scandal for which he received a 4½ years prison sentence in Italy, later quashed on a legal technicality.
As Member for Dulwich, Tessa Jowell was a hard-working and caring person and supported numerous local events and initiatives, not least by unveiling the statue of Edward Alleyn in the grounds of the Old College in 2005. She was appointed Dame in 2012, and following her retirement from politics in 2015 after an unsuccessful bid for the role of Mayor of London where after an early favourable start she lost to Sadiq Khan, she joined the House of Lords. She was found to have brain cancer in 2017 and won enormous support for her brave stand in the House of Lords where she made a moving speech shortly before her death, in which she argued for support for an international initiative to share research, resources and new treatments for brain cancer.