NS interview - Tessa Jowell

Macho politics has had its day: it's time for a new type of politician. Mary Riddell talks to Tessa

Handbags are where we start. Tessa Jowell admires mine, but hers is smarter. It is black with purple piping, and her suede shoes have small mauve bows to match. The handbag has rather slipped from political discourse since Margaret Thatcher brandished her armour-plated version and argued that women were "better at wielding the bag than the bayonet".

While Jowell would never use such sexist jargon, she is keen on presentation. Quite apart from minor sartorial matters, style counts. If Britain's disillusioned women voters are to learn to love Blair again, the government must speak their language. So far, in Jowell's view, it has failed to do so.

"It won't be good enough just to have an election campaign conducted on a more personal basis. People, men and women, want government to be more reflective, more conversational, more engaged. I think we still lack that.

"These themes don't change. Women in the Eighties were unconvinced by big figures, big promises, big slogans and statistics. What women wanted then, and want now, are politicians who understand their family, children and home. It's what Bill Clinton used to call kitchen-table politics . . . The disengagement from conventional politics is not passive. Nor is it [due to] boredom or lack of interest. It is an active disengagement from a style of politics which people no longer feel serves them or their interests."

Exploring women's disenchantment veers easily towards the condescending. The soap box (John Major's platform of choice) and the kitchen table (the pulpit of the former Tory leader William Hague as well as Clinton) are frequently conservative devices. But Jowell cannot fairly be accused of being patronising. No one is more aware of macho politics than she.

Tony Blair may have patented politico-masochism, but Jowell was the test pilot. Broadcasters wondered scornfully, on hearing her Royal Television Society lecture soon after she became Secretary of State for Culture, whether she was up to the job. "I didn't have a bad first year," she says. "I made one bad speech. Afterwards, I asked my most trusted adviser how I had done, and he looked at me with horror in his eyes."

At a previous low point, a "body-image" summit she convened had ended in farce and gibes at Labour's "superwaif" minister for women. Few would now deny Jowell her heavyweight status. She saw off Lords Birt and Burns on BBC reform (they wanted the licence fee spread to commercial channels; she did not). She won the pub opening-hours argument against David Blunkett (she wanted flexible licensing; he did not). In return, he supposedly described her to his biographer as "weak".

"We had a profound disagreement about the Licensing Act. It was unforgivable for David to talk on the record about his colleagues in that way, and I said that to him. But, even so, I have forgiven him. I think he was truly sorry." Does she believe his judgement was skewed by the turmoil over his private life? "Yes. He went through a period that was close to torture, I think, such was the profound nature of his distress." Will Blunkett be back soon? "That's for Tony to decide. I hope so."

To her right-wing critics, Jowell remains the embodiment of the officious state. In their caricature, Nanny Tessa evolved from prim governess to wanton croupier, ushering in a Britain resembling a Monte Carlo for lager louts. But pubs have shown scant enthusiasm for all-day licences, and super-casinos have been whittled down to eight as the government battles to enact its gambling legislation. Is the proposed law better than it was? "Yes. But, if you respond to people's serious concerns, it all becomes a humiliating climbdown or screeching U-turn. Lots of my colleagues wonder whether they really want to mop up this abuse."

And so back to macho politics, where arguments turn on the personal chemistry between Tony, Gordon and Alan, and on whether Labour's senior women are too posh to push the government's cause. Jowell does not see it that way. "But why should anyone expect that women have to be invited in? I'm not going to sit on the sidelines and say: 'Oh God, no one's asked me to do anything.' When I have something to offer, I'll say that I should do it. There is this idea . . . that you have a small coterie of men leading this campaign, and women are timorously waiting to be noticed. It's complete rubbish."

Nor are the frontmen as strident, apparently, as they might appear. "Charles Clarke, like John Reid, has a very highly developed feminine side," Jowell says. John Reid. Is she sure? "Yes, and so does Alan [Milburn]. These are thoughtful, sensitive men." But this is unlikely to occur to any floating voter listening to Reid getting in touch with his inner Rottweiler on the Today programme.

"I'm sure there are lots of men and women who throw their shoes at the radio when they hear Today. If you want to talk in terms the political classes understand, go on [that] programme. If you want to talk to the real world, go on GMTV." Or Richard and Judy? "Yes." This sounds rather dismissive, I suggest, for the minister responsible for the BBC.

"I wouldn't for one moment rubbish the Today programme, but if I want to talk about school dinners or school sport, I'd rather do an interview for GMTV, because I'm talking to the people. This isn't soft-option politics. It drives the Westminster world mad that politicians would renounce Today, the lobby, World at One, Newsnight. But if you want to maintain a continuing conversation with real people, you do it through the media they are listening to."

If Jowell wished, she could boast of how she has outlasted and outshone many men in cabinet. Instead, she plays up her role as instigator of family-friendly policies. Sure Start was her baby and, as public health minister, she prefigured the Jamie Oliver school dinner revolution. "If you look at the archives, you'll find a sweaty picture of me and Charles [Clarke] launching a programme called Cooking for Kids."

Even so, as the advertising industry braces itself for a possible government crackdown on junk-food commercials aimed at children, Jowell thinks "the evidence of impact is not significant". Though government, she stresses, will defer to Ofcom, the independent regulator, she is not instinctively for a ban. "I could say, in response to a populist campaign, that we'll take those adverts off the screen, only to find that it makes not a blind bit of difference to childhood obesity and diet, but that ITV can no longer afford children's programming."

On abortion, Jowell - a supporter of the status quo - sounds disapproving of the Archbishop of Canterbury's apparent wish to draw the issue into pre-election politics. Polling day, she says, "is not a referendum on particular moral issues. The right to live and die is not some kind of party political issue, that should, in my view, be part of an election campaign."

The next parliament, she hopes, will have more women and treat them better. "There is still a climate of sexism. Sketch-writers are obsessed with what women's legs are like, what they wear and how they talk. Things have changed in the 13 years I've been an MP, but until we get equal representation, it's a work in progress."

Of necessity, Jowell has grown tougher. "There have been utterly foul things said and written about me, but I just forget them." The latest onslaught, over gambling, almost passed her by. Unbeknown to her media critics, Jowell was in New York, at the bedside of her brother James, who was dying of cancer. She returned to London briefly when he rallied, then booked a plane straight back when doctors told her that his death was imminent.

For in-flight reading, she took a dossier of her press cuttings. "I remember flicking through, thinking: 'God, this is quite rough', and then wondering where all the really nasty stuff was. Your threshold for offence and hurt becomes so high that you don't notice." Unresentful on her own behalf, she is livid that her husband, the lawyer David Mills, is being pilloried over allegations - utterly denied by him - involving Silvio Berlusconi's financial affairs. "This is only of public interest because David is married to me. This is the price you pay for being married to someone in public life, and it's pretty unfair for our family to have to pay that price."

What next for Jowell, who has served her long stint at her department with skill and aplomb? Naturally, she cannot reveal her hopes, or whether she wants a return to social policy. That is for the Prime Minister to decide. Does she, a staunch Blairite, believe that the Chancellor will inevitably succeed to the top job? "Yes, I think it's highly likely that Gordon will be the next prime minister." Will that be a good thing? "A very good thing." But the Chancellor's prospects, and her own, may depend on the women who hoped too much.

"I talked to young mums in Sure Start who saw the government elected in 1997 almost as the replacement of their lost partner. They thought they would have a prime minister and ministers who so understood their lives that things would change within months." As Jowell concedes: "It hasn't quite been like that."

Rebuilding lost trust depends, as Jowell knows, on combining policies aimed at women with a fresh style of government and a new type of politician. More dialogue and less aggression would be a start. Or, put another way, more handbags and fewer bayonets.