Interview: Jack Straw

The elder statesman of the Brown government is pressing ahead with radical reform of the UK constitu

It's hard to imagine, but Jack Straw clearly fancies himself as a character in Life on Mars, the hit retro cop drama in which a politically correct police officer from the present is transported back to the time of Ford Capris and the three-day week.

With the unions threatening a winter of industrial strife, Straw sprinkles his conversation on the eve of party conference with ominous warnings that the Labour movement must not return to the era of mutually assured industrial destruction. He comes to the interview straight from negotiations with the Prison Officers' Association, whose one-day strike in August raised the spectre of public sector unrest and reminded Straw of his long-haired youth. "We won't do ourselves any good if we get into the situation we got into in the 1970s, which I witnessed . . . It's a Life on Mars story," he says.

Don't let the tailored suits and cufflinks fool you. The Justice Secretary is a creature of glam rock. He can, he says, vouch for the accuracy of Life on Mars, as he lived through that era, first as a young barrister, and, from 1974, working for Barbara Castle, then social services secretary. Straw found himself a back-room boy during some of Labour's darkest days in power (just as David Cameron did on the Conservative side during Black Wednesday two decades later). He even remembers the pay formula won by the trade unions ("n+1"), which, he explains, was one percentage point above inflation.

We suggest that reminding the unions of the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent has become a little tired. "But I've never said remember the Winter of Discontent," Straw responds. "What I've said to them is remember the mid-1970s rather than the end, because that's what's burnt on my brain - the experience of actually being in government as a special adviser in that period and seeing where we ended. On one level, the circumstances aren't remotely the same, because public finance and the state of the British economy is completely different. But what that experience taught me was how important it was to get on top of any indications of inflation and do it quickly."

Straw insists he is keeping up a dialogue with the prison officers, but he makes clear that the overall settlement is non-negotiable. The best he can offer is more flexibility about working conditions and modernisation agreements, and he also promises to do more to raise the status of prison officers so they are seen as key public sector workers in the way that teachers, nurses and police officers are. Whether this will be enough to keep the POA membership at work is another question. He talks about dealing with prison disputes as a Groundhog Day moment.

Indeed, much of Straw's in tray marks a return to two of his former jobs, as home secretary and foreign secretary. Immediately after the interview, he is off to Brussels to discuss aspects of the new EU constitutional treaty. Straw has the air of a man who has been there and done it all, so it is impossible not to quiz him on American sabre-rattling over Iran.

He is keen not to tread on the toes of his successor, but he makes clear that the new-found cooling towards the Bush administration extends to the next potential war. "I think David Miliband has made it clear . . . military action against Iran is not on the UK's agenda." Straw has consistently hinted that he would not support military action in Iran, and he was one of the architects of the three-nation talks with Tehran, involving Britain, Germany and France. "Of course I'm an interested person; how couldn't I be an interested person?" Pressed spe cifically on reaction to a US military strike, he says: "That would be a bridge we'd have to cross. I'd make my decision at the time."

We put to him the assertions made by David Manning, Tony Blair's former foreign affairs adviser and the outgoing ambassador to Washington. In last week's NS, Manning claimed that Blair never wanted to go to war in Iraq and that the British had been misled by the US government on the postwar reconstruction. His remarks have been greeted with some scepticism, but Straw says Manning's description of events is largely accurate. "I never had the least impression that Tony was somehow gung-ho for a war and that the whole thing was cooked up, because it's simply not true."

European poetry

At 61, Straw is the elder statesman of the cabinet, one of the few members of Gordon Brown's team more senior in years than the Prime Minister himself. He is quite relaxed about admitting to differences with cabinet colleagues. He defends his support for the Muslim Council of Britain, whose near monopoly on dialogue with ministers was challenged first by Ruth Kelly, when she was communities secretary, and then by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary. "I think they have a fair point in saying they should not be ignored because they are representative of most of the mosque associations in the country," he says. "Sometimes I agree with them and they with me, and sometimes we have very spirited disagreements, but they are part of civil society."

Throughout Blair's fraught final years in charge, Straw was seen as the Eurosceptics' fifth columnist in cabinet. It was he who in April 2004 bounced the then PM into a U-turn on the EU constitution and agreement to a referendum. Where does he stand now? Even if, as some people argue, the new treaty is 95 per cent the same as the old one, this is not an argument for a plebiscite, he says. "It depends how you work out your 95 per cent . . . because the difference between good and bad poetry is the 5 per cent. Sometimes it's the 1 per cent." The difference, he argues, can be found in the greater clarity of the updated document over the role of a new EU foreign affairs chief, plus clearer opt-outs protecting the UK position in a number of policy areas and a less prominent role for the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. So why did he buckle last time around? He produces an ingenious construct. "We had to have a referendum last time because of the extent of the clamour. I never accepted that it was justified in terms of what the constitution would do." This seems an odd thing to say when a significant number of Labour MPs, the unions, the Conservative Party and 60,000 signatories to a Daily Telegraph petition are calling for a referendum. We ask how loud the clamour has to be this time before the government changes tack. "I think the case is much weaker than it was."

The job of justice secretary, created after the splitting of the Home Office in two, could be seen as a fringe post. But Straw sits at the Prime Minister's left hand around the cabinet table, suggesting that the man who organised Brown's leadership campaign is also de facto Deputy Prime Minister. That he has been given the crucial job of pushing through Brown's constitutional reforms reinforces his status. His role early on during the Blair administration in drawing up the Human Rights Act made him the obvious man for the job. "The principal difference between where we were ten years ago and where we are today is that this is explicitly about reducing the power of the centre and the executive vis-à-vis parliament."

The details of the government's plans for constitutional reform have been well rehearsed (controls on the prime minister's power to declare war, ratify treaties and dissolve parliament; new oversight for the intelligence agencies; a UK Bill of Rights; a statement of British values). Straw rules out a written constitution, at least in the short term. "I'm not against a written constitution, but I think you've got to get the building blocks in place before you get there. In any case, I think it has to be done through parliament ultimately and a referendum."

Another reform missing from the government's plans thus far is changing the way the House of Commons is elected. Straw, like Brown, remains adamant that the link between MPs and the constituencies they represent should be maintained. He remains unconvinced, therefore, by arguments for proportional representation. But, he says, he would favour a move towards the "alternative vote" system (AV) where people mark a list of candidates in order of preference. This ensures that each constituency MP eventually gets the support of a majority of voters.

His undisguised support for AV gives at least a hint of the direction of travel of the Brown government. "I happen to think that first past the post or AV, which is a variant of it, is fairer. The alternative vote has many attractions, including the fact that you have to get 50 per cent plus one in that constituency, therefore you have a greater legitimacy."

Jack Straw is not a man who readily admits he was wrong. On Iraq, on championing the Muslim Council of Britain, on his dealings with the prison officers, he is unrepentant. But on one matter he is prepared to admit that mistakes were made: in not properly selling the Human Rights Act to the British people. This has allowed hardliners, such as the retiring former home secretary John Reid, and their supporters in the right-wing media, to depict it as a criminals' charter.

"Entirely in hindsight, I should have brought out [the fact] that every right is balanced out by a responsibility or duty," he says. "I should probably have gone into more explanation about the benefits to British citizens, not just to those who behave badly, although we all have that potential."