The New Statesman Interview - Tessa Jowell

They call her a bossy boots but all she wants to say is that lots of things are bad for us. Tessa Jo

Is it the lot of all female politicians who rise beyond pipsqueak level to be dubbed a bit batty or very bossy? In Tessa Jowell's case it's the latter tag that has stuck: a quick riffle through the press cuttings on Jowell reveals that she is rarely described as plain Tessa Jowell; it's Nanny Tessa. Nanny Tessa has, according to the press, told us all to stop smoking, insisted we eat healthily, warned teenage girls not to have sex, and set up a monitoring unit to make sure there are as many fat women as thin ones on television.

It is all in tune with the interfering nanny state, which enjoys poking its nose where it surely has no business, her critics continue. Why, they ask, doesn't she just shut up and get back to the nursery? Jowell won't thank me for saying this, but she does indeed have the rosy-apple cheeks, clear skin and piercing blue eyes that Mary Poppins would die for; she is extremely wholesome: a fine example of what following her own advice on healthy lifestyle can do for you.

So, does she mind being called the Nation's Nanny? She certainly doesn't like it much: "I think the nanny jibe has become a catch-all term of abuse, which is used by Tory politicians and right-wing commentators to castigate policy that they feel generally uncomfortable about."

Much of the abuse thrown at Jowell stems from her time as public health minister, when she saw it as part of her job to exhort the nation to make healthy lifestyle choices. Since the last reshuffle she has been an employment minister, ferreting away at the unglamorous but worthwhile project that is the New Deal. That side of her job takes, she estimates, 80 per cent of her time. But it is the other 20 per cent, in her role as women's minister, deputy to Baroness Jay, that causes all the controversy.

Jowell is impatient with the way the press focuses only on the more populist areas of her job. She describes a long interview with a political editor from a broadsheet newspaper, in which she explained the intricacies of the New Deal programme and discussed the other issues, such as the Sure Start programme, that she's grappling with at Employment. But all he wanted, she claimed, was "more stories about fat girls trying to be thin".

Nevertheless, I ask, hasn't she made herself fair game for stories about Nanny Tessa by her campaigns to stop people smoking and to raise awareness of anorexia in young girls? Jowell insists half the stories you read about her are simply not true: "I never, ever said that we're going to institute a project where people sit in front of the television and count the number of fat and thin girls; I was also accused of introducing assertiveness training for girls so that they wouldn't become hairdressers, which was just another example of pure invention."

OK, OK, so some of the stories were over the top. But, still, she has been telling people how to lead their lives in some areas, hasn't she? Jowell won't have it. "There's an enormous difference between having a poster campaign which is giving young people information, or giving mothers information about which is the best kind of food for their babies, and ministers knocking on people's doors, God forbid, or getting on the television and saying, 'here's my handy tip for the day about how you can be healthier'."

Giving information, she believes, is about extending choice, not telling people what to do: "It's about giving people the means by which they make a choice about their own future."

Her fervour for informing people about lifestyle choices comes from her knowledge of her constituency, Dulwich and West Norwood in south-east London, which combines some of the most affluent and poorest areas in the country. "I'm always very struck when I go round my constituency that social exclusion is about much more than poverty." So how do her poor constituents react, I ask, when she tells them to eat more healthily or to stop smoking? Jowell erupts: "But I would never say that. I never say 'you ought to' to anybody."

It seems to me a fairly thin line between saying that stopping smoking is a good thing and that therefore you ought to stop smoking. But Jowell maintains her tactics are rooted in good sense. She knows full well that if the government were to go out and tell 16- and 17-year-olds not to do something, then "it's an open invitation to do just that thing". So she's worked with teenagers, asking them to draw up posters and initiate campaigns themselves about issues such as smoking and teenage pregnancy. This way, she feels, the government is able to "meet the needs and respond to the cries for help that have been coming from teenagers for years, that we as adults have been largely deaf to".

Jowell has felt the full fury of smokers and the tobacco industry with her anti-smoking campaigns. They assert, with the backing of many newspapers, that it is simply no business of government to tell people what they ought or ought not to do; that is not what government is for. Jowell is unapologetic: "It is the business of government to tell you what the risks of smoking are, and if you want to look at the single greatest cause of health inequality, it's the rate at which the poorest die of smoking-related illnesses. And so, if you want to tackle poor health, and health inequality, you tackle smoking."

Like many new Labour politicians, Jowell says that there are two completely different political stories being told. One - in the media - is of lies, manipulation, feuding and nanny- statism. The other - the one she finds outside the Westminster village - is of the real improvements the government is making to people's lives: "If my constituents started saying to me, you've got it all wrong, I would take some notice. But nobody has come to my surgery on a Friday and talked about this bossy, nanny-state government - nobody."

The media attacks do hurt sometimes, she admits, but her philosophy is to shrug them off: "I think you just have to deal with it. I think that, as a politician, if you begin to believe what's written about you, whether it's good or bad, then you really are on a slippery slope. The important thing is that I believe what I'm doing is right."

Jowell is positively evangelical about the work she's doing on the New Deal, where the government is set to announce that it has met one of its key manifesto pledges of getting a quarter of a million youngsters into work.

"Forty per cent of people on the New Deal programme have basic skills so poor that they have difficulty reading simple instructions on a medicine bottle. We will make it possible for every single one of them to become numerate and literate to a level where they will be able to get a job and stay in work."

She talks constantly about striving for a better society and refuses to engage in any of the political gossip that usually entertains politicians so much. Jowell is emphatic that all the alleged personality feuds reported by the media have no basis in fact and, what's more, are of no interest at all to the people out there. Colleagues say this is disingenuous, and that she's just as capable as anyone else of putting the knife into someone when she wants to.

So why, given her presentational skills and her passion for her projects, is Jowell not yet in the Cabinet? She declares that she is "fantastically fulfilled" in the two jobs she's done in government, public health and employment, "delivering in two of the most important areas in which this government will be judged".

She appears unperturbed by the paucity of women in the Cabinet: sure, there are five, but Mo Mowlam is ticking off the days until she goes, Ann Taylor, Margaret Beckett and Margaret Jay are in essentially "housekeeping" jobs at Westminster, and Clare Short is tucked away at International Development, hardly the most high-profile department. I contend that Labour has been a big disappointment for women, and am rewarded with an almost Thatcher-esque explosion: "That's unbelievable rubbish. It's one of these assertions that has got absolutely no foundation whatsoever in fact. This has been the most feminist government in British history and we should be proud of that, judged by what we have achieved." She lists Labour's achievements for women: the national childcare strategy, the extension of breast screening, the working families tax credit, new rights for part-time workers, commitments to improve maternity leave and maternity pay.

Yes, but . . . We're still no nearer having a Labour female prime minister than we ever were, nor is a woman anywhere near one of the top five jobs in the Cabinet. Even the Conservatives have a woman as shadow home secretary. Jowell becomes more exasperated: "Look, the Defence Secretary may not be a woman, but his number two is; there are three women Treasury ministers; five out of the eight ministers at the Department for Education and Employment are female."

We agree to differ on Labour's record on women, and turn to her own work-life balance. She's married to the lawyer David Mills and has two children with whom she enjoys a normal family life - at the weekends, at least. "I like doing my garden, going to art galleries, hanging out with my friends and my children." She's made her own Christmas cake this weekend, and admits to enjoying domesticity. Is she a domestic goddess, then? "No, no, no, but I get tremendous satisfaction from having a nice home and making it a nice place to be."

Tessa Jowell is very nice. Is she too nice to make it to the top?

Well, there are plenty of nice, de-cent, ordinary men sitting around the Cabinet table. Look at Geoff Hoon, Alistair Darling, Alan Milburn. Jowell is, like these three, a competent, hard-working administrator, who's never going to set the world on fire, but can be relied on to do a good job. Unlike the three men, Jowell is always going to face accusations of being a bossy boots.

Her answer is to ignore it all: "I think it's what happens to women politicians. I can't think of any prominent woman politician who hasn't been attacked, and women either become so quiet and invisible that they disappear or they get turned into pantomime horses."

Jowell herself is determined not to buckle under. Perhaps that determination will be enough to propel her those extra steps into the Cabinet. Whether it does or not, you can be sure she won't become so quiet and invisible that she disappears.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of stealthy wealth