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Dame Tessa Jowell at her home

It’s a warm afternoon in north London, and just inside a sun-flecked mews, along a row of whitewashed walls, a white door swings open to reveal Dame Tessa Jowell, veteran Labour politician, former Olympics minister — and now one of the frontrunners in the race to become the next London mayor. Inside the one-bedroom duplex, the tiny entryway is abuzz with youthful activity: Jowell’s singer-songwriter daughter, Jess Mills, 34, has dropped in, a campaign aide is perched on the stairs, and a former parliamentary staffer wielding a pram has dropped by with her baby.

If Jowell, 67, wins next May’s mayoral election, she promises to modernise London’s creaking transport system, not just for prams, but for 100,000 new inhabitants a year. Jowell says her decision to run was prompted by the acute housing crisis faced by London’s young families and youth, many of whom are locked out of the exorbitantly priced property market. “I’m running for young people, who have no hope of owning or even renting a home . . . We need to build at least 50,000 homes a year.”

Jowell bought her flat, once a Victorian coach house, eight years ago, after downsizing from her Kentish Town family home: “It was also a post-office and a launderette,” she says, passing a small study crammed with binders: “I no longer have an office as I did at the House of Commons,” says Jowell, who gave up her Dulwich and West Norwood seat this May to campaign for mayor, a powerful post with wide legislative and budgetary jurisdiction over London’s 32 boroughs.

She leads the way upstairs into an airy open-plan kitchen and sitting room that is cleverly designed, with vaulted ceilings and cathedral windows, to maximise light. “I wake up early so I love the light,” she says. “This is the neo-gothic shell which was completely stripped and refurbished.” When she moved in, “it was a building site.”

With soaring demand for high-priced flats and offices, much of London, says Jowell, is also a building site. Yet while older residents enjoy houses that have skyrocketed in value, London, “risks becoming two cities,” she warns. “The life that awaits so many young people in London is so hard and so little understood by the older and settled majority,” says Jowell. “Many young people use 60-70 per cent of their wages for rent, often in rooms they have to share with strangers.”

So what are her views on cash-rich overseas buyers snapping up property? “Foreigners buying flats in London is great . . . The argument is about people who buy flats with the intention of keeping them empty, like bars of gold in the bank,” she replies. “London should not be that kind of city, where road after road is dark on a winter’s evening.” She says figures for “Buy to Leave” owners are tough to find. “It’s hard to get an accurate assessment. I’m determined to take the necessary steps: if you intend to buy a house that you leave empty, there will be a 1 per cent levy.”

Living space in Dame Tessa Jowell’s home

Jowell is putting forward a blueprint for a new agency — Homes for Londoners — that will get the city building again, starting with the mayor’s land. “We’ll begin by converting 5,700 acres owned by Transport for London into affordable homes,” she says. “I’ll assemble a first-class team to accelerate the pace of development.” Her model, she says, is the Olympic Delivery Authority — an operational team she set up to oversee the 2012 Olympics. “It will be a public-private partnership,” she adds. “There is enough brownfield land in London to build 500,000 homes.”

The flat is filled with art: clay sculptures, contemporary canvasses, prints. “That’s a Hockney print. It’s ‘Young Woman/Old Woman’,” says Jowell, pausing in front of it, “I love the accepting contentment of the older face . . . I bought it with my first ministerial salary.” She is fond of a large, whimsical picture over the stairs: “That’s Graham Clark’s “All the World in London”. I’ve always wanted to live in London.”

Jowell was born in central London but her father, a doctor, and mother, a radiologist and artist, moved the family to Aberdeen when she was five. At the age of 17, she enrolled at the University of Aberdeen to read psychology, and had added a degree in social work from Edinburgh by the age of 21. She then moved back to London and trained as a psychiatric social worker: “I worked with damaged families, girls with eating disorders.” At just 23, she won election as a local Camden Labour councillor. “We bought thousands of terraced houses in more affluent parts and built ‘mixed communities’,” a pioneering practice adopted across London, she says, that the Conservative government is busy dismantling. “They are forcing councils to sell their most valuable property. It will fuel unrest.”

Jowell pulls open the double-glazed doors off her sitting room, and steps on to a terrace with views over a thicket of chestnut trees. “I planted a little garden. It looks quite sweetie-jar. I wanted some trailing Begonias, but I couldn’t find the time.”

The outdoor terrace space

Weekends are spent in Warwickshire with her husband, David Mills, a corporate lawyer who in 2010 was acquitted of Italian charges of accepting a bribe from ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, a former client. The case, once tabloid fodder, is clearly painful for Jowell, who also has a son, Matthew, 31, and three stepdaughters with Mills. The couple reconciled in 2012 after a period of separation and she is protective of her private life. “My husband and children are private people,” she says. “I’m the one that’s standing for election.” After the Labour party took power in 1997, Jowell held six ministerial portfolios in the Blair and Brown cabinets, with posts including minister for health, minister for women, and minister for employment. Her experience, she notes, involved “creating targeted health policy, negotiating the European framework for equality legislation, setting up Ofcom [the media regulator].”

From 2001-2007, she was secretary of state for culture, media and sports; and was also minister of humanitarian assistance at the time of the 7/7 bombings: “I was coordinating assistance for the affected families two days after we won the [Olympic] bid,” says Jowell, who oversaw the 10th double anniversaries earlier this month. “The two will always be linked in my mind.”

A Hockney print (centre)

Displayed downstairs is a cartoon of Jowell on a gold-medal podium, flanked by current mayor Boris Johnson and Olympic-bid leader Lord Sebastian Coe. “There’s Seb; there’s Boris,” she says. “I got this with an Unsung Hero award from a parliamentary committee.” It celebrates her contribution to the 2012 Olympics — a massive infrastructure project, delivered on time and to plaudits and national pride. “204 countries competed,” says Jowell, who was also Olympics minister from 2002-2010, and a board member until 2012.

“Nobody wanted to do it,” she says, “But I think there are moments in government where you can do something visionary and big that changes the country.” Yet didn’t the Olympic budget balloon to £9.3bn? “I was always clear that when we won the Games, we would review the budget,” she replies. “The value to the UK economy was in excess of £13bn. The Games came in under-budget. Money was returned to the Treasury,” she says, adding that east London was transformed. “There are jobs. And we converted just under 2,800 athlete units into mixed housing.”

Jowell still faces a field of six to secure the Labour nomination this August. Sadiq Khan, a Tooting MP, has the backing of major unions. However, in a head-to-head with the leading Conservative candidate, MP Zac Goldsmith, Jowell would claim 57 per cent of the vote, according to a YouGov poll last month.

A sandstone sculpture, ‘Eve’, and paintings

So why aren’t the unions supporting Jowell, who in 2010 endorsed David Miliband for Labour party leader? “I believe many trade union members will vote for me. We need a candidate who can win.”

A young staffer bounds in for the next event: “I’m going all around London talking to people and hearing what they have to say,” says Jowell.

So who is Jowell supporting as the next Labour party leader? “I’m not endorsing any candidate,” she says, adding that she, in turn, is not seeking endorsements from leadership or deputy leadership candidates for her mayoral run. If elected as London’s first female mayor, her focus, she says, will not just be on leading London — but managing it: “I feel very clear about what we need to do to secure the status of London as a global city. And I know how to do it.”

Photographs: Chris Winter

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