She's a woman of 'inner steel' but insists: I still miss my Jewish mother


For Seb Coe, her partner in bringing the Olympics to London, Tessa Jowell was "Mary Poppins in stilettos".

The former Labour cabinet minister agrees that, beneath her soft exterior, there lies a more steely core.

"There certainly is and that was really borne of my mother, saying to me: 'Don't take no for an answer if no is not the answer you want to the question you have asked'. I am pretty determined when I think that there is something I want to achieve."

There was, moreover, another "incredibly important maternal influence" in Ms Jowell's life: the woman she refers to her as "my Jewish mother".

"Once she had got over the arrival of a shiksa in the family," her first husband's mother, "loved me as I loved her, Ms Jowell says. "She gave me enormous faith in myself, that I could do anything. I miss her every day."

She will need all of that self-confidence and steel next summer when she will seek to become Labour's candidate to succeed Boris Johnson as London mayor in 2016.

Nonetheless, she is determined to prove that, even in the combative world of the London Labour party, politics can be done differently: "It is better to be nice, decent and engaged with people rather than bully them and be brutish and nasty."

After two decades in the front line of Westminster politics, she appears relaxed and invigorated by her decision to run for mayor. "My son said to me: 'Don't do this mum, if it is going to make you feel stressed; do it because it's going to be fun'. And this is before the beginning if you like, but I am so enjoying what I am doing and feel an extraordinary sense of liberation. I feel true to myself."

She recognises that a certain distance has developed between many Jews and the Labour Party since the days of Tony Blair's leadership. She experienced that first hand in 2012 when managing Ken Livingstone's bid for City Hall. Friends say that it was her insistence that led him - albeit "kicking and shouting" - to write an open letter to the community apologising for his remarks that Jews were "too rich" to vote Labour.

"What Ken said, actually in both campaigns," she argues, "was very hurtful to the Jewish community and led many in the community to feel alienated from the Labour Party as a result."

That distance has widened further following what many perceive to be the Labour leadership's one-sided response to the war in Gaza.

Just back from her second trip this year to Israel and Palestine - leading a Labour Friends of Israel delegation which visited Israel and the West Bank - she adopts a rather more balanced approach. "I think in conflict areas you only understand by going and seeing and talking to people on the ground," she says. Does she believe the media coverage of Israel is reasonable? "On the basis of what I have seen in Israel, no I don't," she responds.

She found the coverage of the war "heart-breaking" and thinks that "some of the language that Benjamin Netanyahu in particular used was, at very best, unfortunate and appeared to concede nothing in the face of the suffering of what is a poor community in Gaza".

She notes, however, that "much less coverage was given to the consequences for people [in Israel] living closest to the Gaza border," some of whom she met on her visit.

She also believes that Egypt has to "carry some responsibility, having closed the crossing" to Gaza. "The isolation of Gaza, the inability of Gaza to operate lies at their door".

Overall, she felt "very pessimistic" after her two visits. "What is hard to locate is the will to reach a settlement." She lays the blame for this on the "old men running the Palestinian Authority" and their counterparts - "the long-serving leaders" - in Israel.

And while the stalemate continues, people on both sides suffer. "For people to continue living as they're living in Hebron for instance, which is like a hollowed-out town, is unsustainable.

"But also for the Israelis on the kibbutz in the south of the country adjacent to Gaza, the position is unsustainable. How can you run a school, how can you run a centre for children when, as was the case in the summer, rockets are coming over every 12 minutes?"

She is horrified by the rise in antisemitism which accompanied the war in the summer. "It is abhorrent that these attacks occur and I know, because I have seen the figures, about the rate of increase in the summer."

As mayor, she pledges, she "would breach no compromise on the safety and security of Jews living in this country and I would treat antisemitic attacks with exactly the same relentless determination as I would homophobic attacks, attacks on Muslims, on any community represented by a characteristic that invited attack."

She continues: "Attacks on Jews are intolerable, attacks on Jewish institutions are intolerable."

She is, however, uncomfortable with the fact that, in contrast to the attempts at reassurance made by David Cameron, Theresa May, Eric Pickles and Michael Gove, Labour's leadership remained silent on antisemitism for four months

"You will have to ask the leadership for their reasons why Ed did not feel it necessary to say anything, but I can tell you I would absolutely and wholeheartedly condemn it."

Next May, Ms Jowell steps down from the Dulwich and West Norwood seat she has represented for the past 23 years. She believes she is ready to seek the London mayoralty, an office which has the largest personal mandate of any European politician bar the French president.

"I think the experience I have had gives me confidence and a sense of certainty about what it is I have to do."

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