After a political career spanning four decades, on the 12th of May, 2018, Dame Tessa Jowell sadly lost her battle with cancer. Much like during her political career, she was a selfless advocate for the plight of others, and fought bravely with immense courage and dignity. Her death is not only a huge loss for the Labour Party, but for British politics as a whole.
The coming together of politicians from across the political spectrum is testament to how admired Tessa was, and still is. Dame Tessa’s legacy lives on. After her death, Downing Street announced it would be doubling it’s funding for brain cancer in all NHS hospitals (to £40 million), as well as improving the testing process for the disease. This was a key aim for Tessa, as she spent the last months of her life, not only fighting her own battle, but fighting for better treatment for others.
Speaking in the House of Lords in January, with a speech that moved colleagues on both sides of the floor, she demanded better access to care for cancer patients. With cancer believed to affect 50% of Britons at some point in their lives, much more must be done to make the way we deal with the cruel disease more streamlined and effective. She championed the Eliminate Cancer Initiative, a three-step programme founded by Australians Andrew and Nicola Forrest. The key components are: an international network of experimental clinical trials to allow greater access, speeding up trials and the creation of a global database to improve quality of care. Too often, she said, health services in their respective nations, are too reluctant to learn from one another.
Over the course of her political career, she held various positions under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Tessa once told The Guardian, in 2015, that her proudest achievement was the Sure Start initiative launched in 1998, whilst acting as Britain’s first ever Public Health minister. Whilst originally targeting the poorest 20% of the country, the programme was eventually rolled out nationwide, with 4,000 children’s centres at it’s peak. These centres offer a range of services, such as post-natal depression support, pregnancy and health advice, as well as play groups for toddlers.
A study by Oxford University in 2015 found that Sure Start centres had a highly positive effect on maternal health, home life stability and better skill acquisition for toddlers. It is a shame, then, that due to government cuts, Sure Start centres are closing at an alarming rate, with around 1000 centres thought to have been closed since 2010. Women across the country, from all walks of life and many different backgrounds, have undoubtedly benefited from Sure Start centres, and for some, the services were a lifeline. This aspect of her legacy should be protected at all costs.
She is also known for being instrumental in London’s successful bid to hold the 2012 Olympics. Tessa’s key values of inclusion, diversity and teamwork were reflected in the games, particularly within the opening ceremony, which championed the NHS, as well as the rich multiculturalism that has made a great impact on British society.
Tessa wanted to show that the Olympics could be more than just a project shrouded in vanity, for only the privileged to enjoy. She aimed for the games to be hosted in Newham, one of the most deprived and diverse areas of London, and for the Olympics to be a catalyst for investment, change and above all, celebration of those who would ordinarily go unnoticed. Today, the Olympic Park remains a lasting legacy of the games, with the Olympic Stadium now being used to host West Ham United matches. The area has benefited from a boost to the local economy, more jobs and as a result, better life chances for those living there.
Even though politics is known for being competitive and partisan, Tessa chose to help others wherever she could, believing that “There is enough success for everyone”. Rather than setting women against one another, she believed in the importance of women and girls supporting each other. She certainly put this into practice, by mentoring scores of her constituents.
Her legacy is felt, not only by those who worked alongside her, but by families the nation over whose lives she touched. She broke the mould of stuffy men in suits that dominated politics when she broke through, and will be remembered as a fiercely loyal colleague – but not blindly so. When trying to allay Tony Blair’s fears about a potentially unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Olympics, she said “Of course we may not win, but at least we will have had the courage to try”. That very courage was present in Dame Tessa Jowell until the end.
United Politics would like to express our sincere condolences to Tessa’s family, friends and colleagues. As a nation, we owe her so much and her resilience, compassion and stoicism in the face of adversity is inspiration for us all. She was a shining example of politics at it’s best, and the embodiment of what can be achieved when we work together, not against each other, a key ethos of United Politics as a collective.