The Greasy Pole Column from the November 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
The death of Denis Healey, who was the last surviving member of Harold Wilson's 1964 Labour Cabinet, revived a clutch of memorable catch-phrases but also some unflattering comparisons with the uninspiring bunch who now occupy the Labour benches. For example Jeremy Corbyn's recent opponents Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. Will any of these go down in history as 'the best prime Minister we never had'? Will they construct a description of attacks from one of their opponents as 'like being savaged by a dead sheep'? Or scorn the House of Lords (even while they are a member) as 'the home of the living dead' ? How do they measure up to the likes of Hugh Gaitskell, Roy Jenkins, James Callaghan, in their bygone struggles to organise the economy of British capitalism into some kind of election-winning discipline? And would they, like Healey, churn out this stuff as a diversion to their day-time job?
One of the casualties of this situation has been the Right Honourable Dame Tessa Jowell who was recently giving herself a higher chance of being adopted as the Labour Party candidate in the coming election to succeed Boris Johnson as Mayor of London but was defeated by Sadiq Khan. Jowell came into Parliament as the MP for Dulwich, a seat which she won in the 1992 election after a couple of attempts in Ilford North. That was a barren time for Labour and in opposition Jowell was appointed to a succession of Shadow jobs including one which named her as Labour's Spokesperson for Women. Blair's runaway victory in 1997 brought her bigger responsibility until after the 2001 election she replaced Chris Smith, who had been sacked, as Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport. Controversially, she proposed the establishment of a number of 'super-casinos', raising the temperature of the predictable row over her plans when she described her opponents as 'snobs' who were motivated by a resolve to deny 'ordinary people' the opportunity to gamble – a response dismissed by her fellow MP Frank Field as 'crass'.
In this acrimonious stand-off it could not have diverted her opponents to hear that her devotion to Blair was such that she would 'jump under a bus' for him. In fact at the time – February 2006 – it was not unlikely that a substantial number of people would not have demurred if Jowell had taken Blair with her beneath the bus; for one thing there was the shock and outrage after the exposure of the 'dodgy dossier' with its blatant lies about the war in Iraq. Shortly before then a couple of Jowell's constituents, driven to despair by her eager compliance in that war with its deception, its destruction and casualties, had written to Chris Mullin who was an MP for Sunderland, to complain that, among other matters, Jowell was 'just a rubber stamp with “Tony Blair" incised on its bottom'. But it seems that Blair was not impressed by Jowell's worshipful meanderings; she would have been dismayed by his opinion that she was merely 'lukewarm' towards New Labour. All these events were being observed by the smoulderingly impatient Gordon Brown who, when he eventually made it to Labour leader, subjected Jowell to a succession of humiliatingly minor governmental posts until 2009 when he condescended to bring her back as Minister for the Cabinet Office. The entire process of events among those Labour leaders was a succession of cynical manoeuvres presented to us as examples of loyal consultancy and co-operation.
In conflict with the reassuringly comforting titles of the ministries she was involved in, Jowell's domestic life was not notable for its enduring bliss. Her first marriage, to another Camden councillor, was dissolved in 1976 but she kept the marital surname. In 1979 she married David Mills, described as an international corporate solicitor in the shadows of which he represented none other than Silvio Berlusconi who was then the Italian Prime Minister and who was liable to be entertained by Mills at posh London Clubs. Mills was investigated by the Italian authorities on suspicion of involvement in money laundering and tax fraud; inevitably Jowell was also of interest in these matters, which moved Mills to describe himself as 'an idiot'. In March 2006, to protect her political standing, they separated and in 2009 a court in Italy sentenced Mills to four and a half years imprisonment for accepting a bribe from Berlusconi after giving false evidence in a trial for corruption. He appealed against this sentence and in 2010, after a series of applications, a Cassation Court dissolved the case under the Statute of Limitations and ordered Mills to pay €250,000 for damaging the reputation of the office of the Italian prime Minister. Meanwhile Blair predictably cleared Jowell of having any conflict of interest over the case. By 2012 Jowell and Mills were effectively back together again but the case, in one shape or another, rumbles on.
In 2013, after announcing that she was to stand for London mayor (and being popularly tipped as the favourite) Jowell unleashed an asterisk-laden verbal barrage to an interviewing Guardian reporter: 'Those a******es are so f****** rancid' … and she recalled being harassed by a cameraman with his 'f******, you know, penis-like lens… and I said You f**** off out of here ...' On a similar theme there is an old photograph of Tessa Jowell with Denis Healey. They are at a public meeting during an election, with the posters at the walls bellowing ‘Vote Jowell Labour’. They have serious faces, composed to encourage the audience to vote for their style of government to run British capitalism with its repression and violence and its deceit. Perhaps the photograph was taken when the voters were grateful for Jowell's support for their campaign to stop the closure of the local post offices, which would have affected any of them who had problems getting to another one a distance away. If so, they would have ignored the fact that she was a member of the government which was planning to impose those closures. There was a time when the word ‘promising’ might have been resorted to in any discussion of Jowell’s chances of eventually making it to the heights of the Greasy Pole. Parents in the medical profession, a good degree at Edinburgh, working as a psychiatric social worker then assistant director of the charity Mind. But her failure to persuade enough of the voters in London to make her their mayor consigns her to a place in history rather like those others who long ago orbited around Denis Healey and his caustic humour.