Mo Mowlam

Get on and do it: Mo Mowlam

It’s tricky to write a portrait of Mo Mowlam (1949-2005) in a few hundred words, when so many millions of people feel they knew her personally. Indeed, it is this quality which lingers after wordy tributes and lists of achievements have faded. Like Ellen Wilkinson, on whom Mo lavished praise in her own maiden speech, Mo Mowlam was simply one of us – ‘our Mo’.

Born to a Post Office worker and a telephonist (Frank and Tina), Mo would later describe the most marked aspects of her childhood as her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s stable love. Despite a sometimes difficult home life, Mo excelled academically and graduated from Durham University as an outstanding student. Photos of the young Mo show her to have been spectacularly beautiful, with long blonde waves and mischievous blue eyes. University friends would later recall her string of male friends, one of whom led her to move to the United States where she undertook postgraduate studies. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1979 that Mo returned to the UK, now Dr Mowlam, and apparently set on pursuing a political career.

Like many Labour women of her generation, Mo worked hard for years to secure a parliamentary seat. Years before the introduction of All-Women Shortlists, female MPs were still a curious rarity and women faced an up-hill struggle to secure slim pickings during the decline of Labour’s electoral fortunes. Mo threw herself into CLP work in Newcastle but her concerted efforts to secure a seat in 1983 failed. The process was dispiriting, yet Mo’s later comments on the topic masked the disappointment she must have felt at the time. Apparently undeterred, after that general election Mo continued to cultivate political contacts and look for potential seats. Her break came only very shortly before the 1987 general election, when the safe Labour seat of Redcar was unexpectedly vacated. In a closely fought contest for the nomination, Mo won from a shortlist of four. That year, she finally made it to the house of commons.

Aged 38 when she entered parliament, Mo Mowlam was not so much a ‘bright young thing’ as a relatively well-known figure within the party and a trusted pair of hands. Her promotion under Neil Kinnock was swift, first as junior spokesperson on Northern Ireland and then the same role on the City of London and Corporate Affairs. Never particularly at ease in corporate environments, Mo later revealed how she masked her lack of knowledge by responding to bankers’ questions not with statements but with questions of her own, making them do all the talking. It was in this role that Mo met the man who was to become her husband, bringing both personal happiness and a ready-made step-family into her life.

As her relationship with Jon Norton grew, so did Mo’s political career, leading to a shadow cabinet appointment in 1992. A vocal advocate for the ‘modernising’ wing of the party, Mo was deeply shocked by the death of John Smith, with whom she had had a warm relationship. Her subsequent support of Tony Blair’s leadership bid was an obvious fit, given her somewhat cool relationship with Gordon Brown (with whom she had worked when based in corporate affairs). Yet despite eagerly positioning herself for the role of Blair’s campaign manager, Mo was overlooked in favour of Jack Straw. While Blair and Mo remained professionally close for some time later, the incident was a precursor of other frustrations that would follow.

1997 was, of course, a transformative year. Labour’s landslide victory heralded once-in-a-generation opportunities and Mo found herself as one of the most experienced female politicians in government. But the professional triumphs of that year masked personal tragedy. As Mo’s weight fluctuated and her appearance changed radically, she faced the reality of a brain tumour and the aggressive course of radiotherapy required to treat it. The rest of Mo’s political career would be lived in the shadow of illness. While the gravity of her illness was kept secret from most colleagues and the public, Mo relied on the support of a few close confidants to maintain her appearance of relative normality.

In Tony Blair’s first cabinet, he appointed Mo as Secretary of State to Northern Ireland. At first Mo was disheartened by the posting, but it was to prove her greatest political triumph. Her account of her time in Northern Ireland, her interesting negotiation tactics and her steely determination to drive the peace process forward have become the stuff of political legend. Mo’s own account, in the memoir Momentum, is a surprisingly measured assessment of the work surrounding the Good Friday Agreement and her personal motivations. Less commented on is the work Mo did, alongside Helen Jackson MP and others, to develop the political power of women in Northern Ireland and to bring so-far marginalised voices into the political conversation. In the context of her illness, Mo’s steadfast commitment to meet as many groups as possible – to bring about an authentic national consultation – is striking.

Much has been made of the standing ovation Mo received during Tony Blair’s conference speech in 1998. Perhaps such raw popularity was a political kiss-of-death. Certainly, Mo felt aggrieved that she was moved on from Northern Ireland against her will, when she felt she still had much to offer. Her stubborn commitment to what is traditionally viewed as a cabinet post lacking in prestige perhaps revealed a lack of ruthless ambition. Mo was the Labour Party’s ‘Cinderella’ who (as newspaper cartoons noted at the time) was refusing to go to the ball. Having turned down Labour’s candidacy for London mayor, she instead found herself sweeping cinders in the Cabinet Office in 1999. To Mo, the post was an insulting demotion and her sporadically tense relationship with Tony Blaire disintegrated. Under the strain of failing health, Mo retired from the government and from the commons in 2001. In typical fashion, her public statement at the time stuck two fingers up at her critics:

“I have several years of my working life left and want to do something different before I finally retire.”

Mo’s final years were spent with her family, writing, and meeting the public who had been so touched by her work in Northern Ireland. She made periodic forays into politics, such as her vocal criticism of the Iraq War and her support for legalising drugs. But her health never allowed her to forge the kind of post-parliamentary career she might have sought in different circumstances.

Mo Mowlam died, aged 55, having left her mark on the party and the country. Yet there is no sense that she would have sought cloying tributes nor that she would have wanted others to sentimentalise her life. She was ‘our Mo’ but she was also plain-talking to the end. Mo loved life. Her achievements – and the way she went about them – provide genuine inspiration for a life of action. The final words are hers, reported at the time by the BBC from a conversation she was overheard having with Gerry Adams during the peace negotiations:

“Bloody well get on and do it, otherwise I’ll head-butt you!”

Copyright: Kathryn Perera, 2011

This article was originally posted at Labour List.


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