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."

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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