Goodbye to Jack Straw

Will we miss him? I won’t.

First Alistair Darling and now, surprise, surprise, Jack Straw. From the BBC website:

[The] former Labour cabinet member Jack Straw is to step down from his current role, ending 30 years of front-bench politics.

The Blackburn MP has held many of the top jobs in British politics, including foreign secretary and home secretary.

Elected to parliament in 1979 as the member for Blackburn, Straw was a campaign manager for Tony Blair's 1994 Labour leadership bid and then performed the same role again for Gordon Brown in 2007. He was one of only three people to have served in the cabinet continuously from Labour's victory in 1997 until its defeat in 2010 (the other two being Brown and Darling). He was once described by Sky's Adam Boulton as "the longest-serving British cabinet minister since Gladstone" and by the Evening Standard's David Cohen as "the longest-serving cabinet minister since Lloyd George", but both descriptions, as the Indie's John Rentoul has noted, are factually inaccurate.

I can't say I'm going to miss Straw. Nothing personal -- in fact, I'm a fan of his son (and potential replacement in Blackburn?) Will -- but, for a start, he is one of the so-called greybeards whom I blame, along with Geoff "I Want to Make Money" Hoon, for wrongly persuading Brown against going to the polls in the autumn of 2007. Labour would have won then, rather than lost in May 2010.

He is also a classic Labour tribalist who was a roadblock to electoral reform during the party's 13 years in office. I remember bumping into him outside the conference chamber in Brighton in September 2009, after Brown's speech, in which the then prime minister revealed that he had converted to AV only (rather than full proportional representation, as Alan Johnson, John Denham and other pluralists in the cabinet had been urging him to).

Straw couldn't hide the smile on his face as he briefed reporters. I suspect that even now, he is delighted at the prospect of Labour campaigning for a No vote in next year's AV referendum, due to the Lib-Con coalition's outrageous decision to bundle together electoral reform with the so-called equalisation and reduction in the number of Commons seats.

But there is one issue which, more than any other, will stain Straw's reputation for ever, and for which I, and others, will never forgive him. From the BBC again:

As foreign secretary, he played a central role in the decision to commit British troops to the US-led invasion of Iraq and in unsuccessful attempts to secure a second UN resolution on the eve of war.

In evidence to the Chilcot inquiry in January, he described his decision to back the 2003 war as the "most difficult" of his career, describing it as a "profoundly difficult political and moral dilemma".

In his evidence to the Iraq inquiry, Straw also admitted that he could have stopped the war if he had opposed the invasion in cabinet, but he chose to remain loyal to Tony Blair. In recent years, the former foreign secretary has tried to portray himself as some sort of reluctant supporter of the war, if not a sceptic. And yet, as a producer on the Jonathan Dimbleby programme between the years 2002 and 2004, I remember Straw appearing several times on the show to passionately, cogently and, of course, disingenuously promote, support and defend that disastrous and disgusting decision. But it does seem that, in private, he had his doubts (see the Downing Street memo for the Straw quote on the case for war being "thin"). Thanks for sharing those doubts with us, Jack, and with parliament and the UN Security Council.

Oh wait a minute . . . you didn't. So shame on you. And goodbye.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR