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Cllr Peter John pays tribute to Baroness Tessa Jowell at Memorial Service

19 October 2018

At a memorial service at Southwark Cathedral this week, Cllr Peter John, Leader of the Council paid tribute to his friend, and former Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, Baroness Tessa Jowell DBE.

His tribute is below:

There was a time, not so long ago, when politicians were amazing and anything seemed possible. Tessa and her politics were perfect for that time - obviously she was amazing, with her political drive and her genuine desire to tackle the root causes of problems, to improve people’s lives and to make people a little happier, and she never accepted that anything was impossible, and always worked - sometimes in quiet, disarming or subtle ways - to revolutionise the way things were done.

My friendship with Tessa over nearly 20 years came with me as a councillor and council leader here in Southwark, and Tessa as one of our local MPs,  Cabinet Minister, Olympic hero, Mayoral candidate, Freewoman of our Borough and Peeress of the realm.

My council ward has long been one of those places which has over the years moved between Camberwell & Peckham and Dulwich and West Norwood. Not exactly dangerous frontier territory – but a great place nonetheless.  When I was first elected as a councillor in 2002 my ward fell within Tessa’s constituency. Being part of the Dulwich & West Norwood family brought massive benefits. Not only did I get to work with Tessa on local issues, but also with her brilliant constituency team - Duncan, Julia, Andy, and so many others who worked with her and were devoted to her.

An incredibly unreliable or maybe invented statistician has calculated that the combined continuous service of just 3 of Tessa’s constituency office staff was 739 years - or something like that. But it was a measure of Tessa as a person that she did find and retain that loyalty. And when politically things got tough, that loyal staff and those loyal constituency members just worked even harder.

Tessa never demanded loyalty - but it was just there. You wanted to work with her, and for her, to be part of Team Tessa.

But it wasn’t just being part of her team that was a benefit – it was seeing her close up combining her responsibilities as a Cabinet Minister with her role as a constituency MP.  Seeing her gather views at coffee mornings with constituents or hosting one of her Tessa’s Tea Parties at conference – those famous gatherings in a corner of one of the Party conference hotel restaurants or bars where Julia and Duncan would pour cups of tea, offer a biscuit and reassure us that Tessa was on the way!

Although it is hard to think of Tessa without a smile – or even quite a naughty laugh, she was also someone who was always prepared to have the tough conversations. If she believed in something or someone she was not afraid to say so. It was always so impressive to see her in a constituency, branch or residents meeting listening to the arguments being pitched against her or the Labour government, and calmly and with great authority responding to those arguments. She might not have always won her critics around to her view - although she often did - but she certainly did win their respect.

Tessa worked brilliantly with local councillors and the local council to achieve improvements for our residents.  Whether it was visiting the East Dulwich Estate – where she was greeted with a magnificent bunch of flowers and a quasi-Royal welcome - to talk about much needed improvement works to homes there; or campaigning successfully with local parents to deliver new secondary schools in East Dulwich; or shaming the then LibDem/Tory Council into saving and investing in Camberwell Leisure Centre, she brought the same passion and humour to local campaigns as she did to everything she did on the national stage.

A couple of years ago Lib Peck and I decided that our two boroughs needed to try and find some innovative solutions to the challenge of affordable child care.  There was only one person who could possibly chair our Childcare Commission.  The report that Tessa produced reaffirmed her passion for positive early intervention in a child’s life.  Tessa instinctively knew what changes were needed to make such a massive difference for the youngest of children.  Some people talk about it – but Tessa was about genuinely tackling the causes of inequality at the earliest age.

David, it is the greatest honour to have been asked to speak here today; but also the greatest sadness that we are remembering Tessa rather than celebrating her life with her here. I am sure I am not alone in still finding it hard to believe that Tessa has gone. In some ways it’s hard to think she was ever ill - because her amazing spirit just continued to shine through. That huge and sparkling smile, those radiant eyes, that warm embrace - the Tessa hug.

I still expect a text message, a phone call - “Pete, it’s Tessa”, or her slightly bustling entry to a room looking fabulous and receiving the warmest “Tessa hug”.

Maybe this is what is meant by someone’s spirit living on after they are gone. I have no doubt that Tessa’s spirit will live on in the hearts of those she knew here today, and in those whose lives she touched and improved in Southwark, Lambeth, and in so many places beyond.




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