‘I BELIEVE that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way’ once sang a wise Whitney Houston. As Tessa Jowell prepares to step down after 23 years as the Member of Parliament for Dulwich, she hopes securing high quality schools for the children of her constituency will be her legacy.
In the organised chaos of trying to vacate her Westminster office by the close of Parliament later this month, the 67-year-old beamed as she recalled highlights of her local political career. Like when 500 people packed into St Barnabas Church in Dulwich to voice their support for the new Charter School, which subsequently opened in 2000.
“That’s what I’ve loved about representing the constituency – there’s no limit to what you can do if you have the community with you. That’s been a great source of pride for me.”
When Tessa was first elected back in 1992, middle class parents would have jumped at the chance to send them to Alleyn’s, Dulwich College or James Allen’s Girls’ School. Now the former psychiatric social worker says the choice of good quality local schools is plentiful.
“One of the great changes over the years has been brought about by the schools. There’s been a marked increase in quality schools. That means young families stay here because the schools are so good instead of moving out to Kent and that’s had an impact on the demographic of the area.
“I hope my legacy is about the young people of the constituency. They’re going to first class schools so they can go on to do well.”
Even when Tessa was Tony Blair’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport or putting on an event the size of the London Olympics, there can be no doubt that she has worked hard for her constituents for over two decades. Now that she’s eligible for a bus pass, Tessa’s decided to hand over the baton… and run for London Mayor instead – though she is adamant that the two decisions were unrelated.
“Although I feel incredibly sad about standing down I don’t regret it and I don’t think I’ve made the wrong decision. It’s time for me to move on. I feel I’ve had my turn.
“I’ve absolutely loved it and I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity for such a big part of my life.”
A burst of laughter interrupts a long stare into the middle distance after I ask her to trawl her memory banks of the last quarter of a century for those moments she would rather forget.
“I’ll always remember being on the Thames Link to get to Ebony House Club to welcome the Queen and not hearing the announcement at Blackfriars that the train would not be stopping – I whizzed past Loughborough Junction and all the other stations all the way to Sutton. That was quite a bad moment, but fortunately I’d left plenty of time so I made it.”
One of the darkest moments for the area during her time in office was the riots of August 2011. Tessa had just flown out to Boston on a family holiday, spent the first day on the phone and then flew back and headed straight to Brixton market.
“Sitting in Brixton market with traders whose stalls had been ransacked and just thinking ‘there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now.’”
Arguably the biggest battle Tessa has fought locally is the one for Dulwich Hospital. The struggle has been going on for as long as she has been in office and though she claims a victory after the recent announcement of a new health centre to be built on the East Dulwich Grove site by 2017, it is a far cry from what was on the table originally.
After more than twenty years’ wait, there will be no intermediate beds on the site, which was sold to a consortium called Building Better Health back in 2004, and leased back to the NHS in a private/public partnership known as a Local Improvement Finance Lift (LIFT).
“That was the only source of funding. We had to go for a LIFT. I’m a very practical politician and I’m interested in getting results.
“I think there have been some very good and successful PFI (Public Finance Initiative) schemes and some disastrous ones, mostly outside of London, but just because there have been some disastrous ones, that doesn’t mean that Dulwich Health Centre will be anything other than a centre of excellence.
“The delay has been appalling but the situation has changed around it. I’m very optimistic about what we now have.”
Tessa has taken some flak over the years for her handling of the hospital saga, but it is nothing the disarmingly charming mother-of-two couldn’t handle.
A staunch Blairite, she publicly supported the then Prime Minister’s decision to invade Iraq in the wake of the ‘dodgy dossier’, and was soon made aware of the level of local feeling against the New Labour stance.
“It was a difficult time for me in my constituency. A lot of people took views that were different from mine. These were carefully considered views from church leaders and other people for whom I had immense respect.
“People were entitled to know why I’d reached the view I did so I called a public meeting.
“I’ll never forget driving into Half Moon Lane that evening twelve years ago. There were already 350 people in the hall and 200 more waiting outside. I did the first meeting and it was tough. It was really tough. I took questions for more than two hours and then I brought the second lot of people in and held another meeting until midnight.
“You owe people an explanation and they absolutely had the right to expect that from me,” she said defiantly, adding that she still stands by her support for the invasion. “Where I think we failed in Iraq was in surrendering to the Americans the responsibility for rebuilding the country.”
This will be just one of the headlines to be inevitably raked up if she is chosen as the Labour candidate for London Mayor, along with those about when her husband was investigated for tax fraud while working for Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, ultimately leading to a very public marriage separation.
“I’ve had the spotlight on me for 25 years. I’m fair game but my family’s not fair game. That was a terrible time. It’s a stick to beat me with but my family is entitled to their privacy.
“My phone was being hacked, my children were being followed. Just keep the focus on me.”
Despite these intrusions into her private life, Tessa is marching into centre stage with her pledge to bring more much needed affordable housing to the capital if she is elected London Mayor in 2016.
“The biggest crisis facing London is the shortage of affordable housing. The situation is acute in Southwark. Too many people have to rent poor accommodation and that has got to change.”
If elected, Tessa will embark on a four year stint in City Hall which will take her into her 70s, proving that her greatest love of all is indeed public office, which she confirms as she says wistfully: “It enters your soul, being a representative.”