Labour: stop taking the tabloids

Lord Jenkins was the reforming Home Secretary of the progressive Sixties. Here he tells Nyta Mann why politicians in the Nineties would be wise to pursue libertarian policies
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The Independent Online
Roy Jenkins has a favourite saying: "Liberty is cheap." He has, in private meetings, told Tony Blair so. The leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords gives informal advice to Blair, to which the Labour leader is said to pay great attention. Jenkins has not publicly backed New Labour, but like Shirley Williams, his follow co-founder of the Social Democratic Party, he has come close by heaping extravagant praise on Blair. There has even been talk among some Labour peers that Prime Minister Blair could do worse than appoint Jenkins Leader of the House of Lords should a little cross-party co-operation be in order after the election.

This Saturday, Jenkins is one of the keynote speakers at a conference hosted by the Fabian Society and Nexus, the newly formed network of centre- left academics and thinkers. Both organisations are in the bosom of the Labour Party, but the conference title - Passing the Torch - brings together figures who span the centre-left of British politics. Lord Jenkins of Hillhead will be sharing a platform with Tony Blair and Robin Cook.

Jenkins is one of the grand old men of politics. Home Secretary (twice) and Chancellor under Harold Wilson, he was at one time seen as Labour's crown prince, destined to lead the party and become prime minister. He lost out to Jim Callaghan and became President of the European Commission instead. But it is his first stint at the Home Office, from 1965 to 1967, that stands as his greatest political achievement. In two hyperactive years, he introduced, on his own initiative, a host of ground-breaking social reforms. Chief among them were legalising abortion, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the liberalisation of the divorce laws. Though they would later be criticised by some on the right as having paved the way for the "permissive society", it is undeniable that the new laws changed for the better the lives of millions of ordinary people.

Despite having indelibly blotted his copy-book with his old party by breaking away to found the SDP in 1981, Jenkins is still held by Labour MPs as the model Labour Home Secretary. But ask him how he sees the chances of a New Labour government introducing similarly bold or progressive home affairs legislation, and he can barely squeeze the answer out through his laughter: "Nil, if Mr Jack Straw is Home Secretary, if you really want to know!"

This prediction may come as something of a blow to Straw's own hopes. The shadow Home Secretary has said he would like to leave office with a record comparable to Jenkins' in terms of lasting reputation, yet has been grimly determined to out-tough the Tories on the home affairs front.

"Yes, it's rather strange in a way, isn't it? I think a libertarian policy on penal and other matters would be both right and wise for an incoming Labour government, because apart from anything else, it's cheap. Liberty, surprisingly enough, is cheap in terms of public expenditure. A hard policy is rather expensive. That's not the only motive, but given that Labour is obsessive - up to a point understandably and rightly, though they're going a bit beyond what I would like - about not increasing public expenditure and not raising taxation, it seems to me that this points even more strongly in the direction of arousing some libertarian enthusiasm."

Both Blair and Straw have resisted this thrifty liberal logic. Liberty may indeed be cheap, but New Labour calculates the cost in the votes of Middle England, not in money. Fearful of being seen as soft on not only crime but also squeegee merchants, noisy neighbours, youngsters out after dark and what Straw has described as "families from hell", the party talks an increasingly social authoritarian line.

Jenkins, an unashamed libertarian, is deeply disappointed: "It shows lack of determination. You've got to arouse somebody's enthusiasm."

He believes that whoever holds the position of Home Secretary can also define a government long after those who serve in it have moved on. It's a lesson he learned from his own various high offices. "Finance bills, management of the economy and budgets tend to be short-term," he says. "The incoming tide of one's successor sweeps them away like sand castles.

"This is very much a retrospective thought that probably came to me five or more years later. But while the Chancellor of the Exchequer is much more at the centre of politics at the time, in the Home Office above all you can leave a much more permanent footprint."

Though he was Chancellor himself for the final three years of Wilson's first term of office, Jenkins admits that if the administration were judged on economic performance alone, there would be little for Labour supporters to cheer about.

"The record of that 1964 to 1970 Labour government, which wasn't all that successful economically - a lot of unpleasant things had to be done and nothing worked until the end of my Chancellorship - would look a great deal more barren than it does if it hadn't been for the Home Office reforms."

During his time as Home Secretary, Jenkins enjoyed a largely free hand to pursue his own priorities. "I had a certain amount of containable trouble in Cabinet. But Wilson was really willing to let me do my own thing. I don't think he was strongly in favour of what I introduced, but he wasn't strongly against."

Such freedom of operation seems remarkable these days. Tony Blair, who shot to public prominence and won near- universal praise when he was shadow Home Secretary, pays close personal attention to the efforts of the man who took over his old job. Jack Straw has raised to a virtue his own preference for reflecting popular - or even populist - opinion on home affairs issues, rather than taking a risk by moving ahead of it in any way. It is an approach Jenkins strongly disagrees with. "I don't think it is a virtue. I think it's the duty of people to lead opinion and not follow it. Sensibly, you've got to have some regard to being reasonably persuasive and carrying opinion reasonably behind you, but certainly not just to say that you're following all the prejudices of saloon-bar opinion."

It isn't that Jenkins doesn't appreciate the pressure Labour faces to stick to its ultra-cautious strategy. As he acknowledges, he never had the Daily Mail et al waiting to pounce on his every move in quite the same way they would today.

"Tabloid opinion is probably central. It wasn't nearly as bad then. You have to remember that the most successful tabloid in the Sixties was the Daily Mirror, which pursued a policy which is almost unimaginable now to The Sun or Daily Mail. The Mirror was a very successful popular newspaper, but ... it was constantly concerned to try to elevate the views and tastes of its readers, rather then degrade them."

He nevertheless feels that Labour has unnecessarily boxed itself in by adopting an approach to law and order "geared to propitiating the tabloids" and keeping up with Michael Howard.

"There is no need to be stuck in a corner," he says. "I forget who the original `me too'-ist was - who it was to, that is. I think it was to one of the Roosevelts, probably Theodore. But it's one thing being `me too' to Teddy Roosevelt. It's another thing being `me too' to Michael Howard. So I'm afraid I'm not very sympathetic to the home office policies of the present shadow Home Secretary."

Like many within Labour, Jenkins believes Straw has doggedly pursued the "me too" stance for electoral purposes.

"I think he probably does want to be more liberal in office. I hope so, at any rate," he says. Many of Straw's parliamentary colleagues privately agree. Whether Straw will find it possible to come out of his liberal closet, presuming he is in it now, of course, once Labour wins power is another matter.

"It's quite difficult to pursue a policy of thinking that what you say before you come into office doesn't to some extent determine how you behave in office. You become a bit of a prisoner of your own rhetoric."

So how does Jenkins rate Straw's chances of achieving a lasting record as Home Secretary, should Blair give him the job? "If he could greatly reduce crime, that would be a great benefit. But I don't see any evidence that following a little way behind but half in step with Michael Howard is likely to do that. It's against the view of all informed opinion."

But the outlook for libertarians is not all gloomy, he is keen to stress. Concerned that he is sounding a more relentlessly negative note than he perhaps intends, he points out that there is the odd thing Straw promises that Jenkins does positively approve of.

"There are one or two of his other policies, obviously," he says. When asked to specify which ones he likes, there is a long pause. "I'm trying to remember," Jenkins explains, pausing again. "There was one thing I saw the other day which was very fair." Another pause. "Oh! It's on homosexual reform," he says finally. Straw has indeed pledged to repeal the controversial Clause 28 powers that prevent local councils from presenting homosexuality in a positive light. "I was surprised at that, perhaps. So I'm not saying it's all wrong, by any means."

What then, without criticising Straw, does Jenkins believe the next government - whichever party forms it - ought to do? This time, there is no hesitation: "Well of course, somebody's got to look rationally at drugs at some time." Oh dear. This is another subject on which he is highly unlikely to get any satisfaction from Labour, as Clare Short discovered last year following her mild suggestion that legalisation of cannabis was an idea worthy of debate.

"It won't be touched with a barge-pole," Jenkins accepts. "I haven't considered it in great detail, and I don't say I'm necessarily persuaded in favour of the legalisation of marijuana without question, but nobody considers it objectively at all."

It seems there is no getting away from the fact that there is more for Jenkins to criticise - openly or implicitly - than to praise about Jack Straw as prospective Home Secretary. Then again, this is no surprise given that while in just about all other policy areas Liberal Democrats can live quite happily with New Labour, the greatest philosophical distance between the two parties exists in home affairs. Jenkins agrees.

"I think a government which wants to have enthusiastic support of the still substantial and considerable left-of-centre leaning part of the population would be very wise - particularly if it feels very restricted in the public expenditure field - to pursue a generally liberal, libertarian policy on home affairs matters."

But Jenkins best summarises his attitude with a thought that applies equally to many Labour, as well as Lib Dem, supporters. "I do have very grave doubts about Mr Straw's policies and attitudes," he says. "But that's not enough to make me want another Tory victory."