Profile: Right man for Blair hand: Jack Straw

Tough on crime or tough on getting elected? Stephen Castle on Howard's shadow

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AS LABOUR Party ranks split publicly last week over new anti-terrorism powers, Jack Straw let colleagues in on a personal secret. The shadow home secretary, who backed the Government and incurred the wrath of 40 backbench rebels, still bears, on his backside, a small scar inflicted by flying glass from the IRA bombing of the Old Bailey in March 1973.

The story may be mildly embarrassing, the message is utterly typical: on law and order, the country and the party can expect no less stringency from him than from the Tories. The following day, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, announced new proposals on sentencing; Straw offered criticisms but no condemnation of the principles.

Incredibly, Labour is now well ahead of the Conservatives in the opinion polls on law and order, even though this is a traditional Tory plus point and, at present, the crime rate is falling. But within the Labour Party Straw has paid a price.

One senior Labour colleague last week described him as not only "a Blair apparatchik" but " the most illiberal shadow home secretary in recent memory". In the week of cola wars, the Liberal Democrats called him " `Howard lite' in a new blue can' ". These are not comfortable epithets for the one-time student radical, the Tribunite Labour MP and the political heir of Barbara Castle.

BORN in 1946, John Whitaker Straw was brought up in a political family. His great-grandfather fought against enclosure; his father was a Second World War conscientious objector; his mother became a Labour councillor.

Jack spent his first six years in a flat in Buckhurst Hill, in suburban Essex, before moving to a council maisonette in nearby Loughton. It was not poverty - his father was an insurance clerk, his mother a teacher - but, with a family of five (Straw has two brothers and two sisters), money was tight. It got tighter when his parents separated. Jack was then 10.

Unwisely, Straw invoked his council estate background to illustrate a policy initiative against nuisance neighbours last year, recalling his own family's troublesome neighbours. The Daily Mail tracked them down, gleefully reporting their description of "a little toffee-nosed boy nobody wanted to play with". Another neighbour recalled the 11-year-old Jack berating an ice-cream man for illegally sounding his chimes after 7pm.

But while some neighbours saw a Lord Snooty in him, his classmates at Brentwood public school - to which Straw won a boarding scholarship - saw a boy from the council estate. Straw survived aregime of beatings and bullying (he later admitted that he was sometimes aggressor, as well as victim) to become head of house and deputy head of school.

After reading law at Leeds University he went on to make his name with the National Union of Students, becoming president in 1969 in a left-wing coup, which deposed a more "moderate" incumbent. His declared aim (slogan: "make the NUS respected but not respectable") was to put the union in the vanguard of the student movement, which was then capable of bringing universities to a standstill, leading the television news and making governments tremble. He succeeded. Under the Straw stewardship, the union was accepted as the authentic voice of studentdom, its president as a mini-baron who, if not grown up enough for beer and sandwiches at Number 10, should be treated as a serious negotiating force.

Yet even then there was another side. At the NUS conference in 1971, Straw made a powerful speech against support for overseas guerrilla groups, which won the day. Friends say a detestation of violence and a belief in law, order and stability, existed even in the student radical.

Few doubted that, of all his generation, Jack Straw was most likely to make it to the Labour front bench. And his subsequent career is an almost textbook example of that curious modern British phenomenon, the professional politician. He qualified for the bar (coming third in England in his finals), practised for a couple of years and meantime got elected to Islington borough council and became deputy leader of the Inner London Education Authority. He met Ted Castle, who spoke highly of him to his wife, Barbara Castle. When Labour returned to power in 1974, Straw became Barbara's adviser at the Department of Social Services, alongside Brian Abel-Smith, a London School of Economics professor. The professor, Mrs Castle once explained, was employed for his brains, Jack for his guile and low cunning. She remembers Straw now for his competence and unfailing diligence: after one all-night meeting he drove his boss home at 7.30am, the minister singing to keep him awake.

In 1977, Straw, still barely in his thirties, was selected to fight Castle's Blackburn constituency on her retirement, as safe a Labour stronghold as any aspiring young politician could hope for. He duly became an MP in 1979 and had made the front bench by 1984.

It was not all plain sailing. A child died and his first marriage broke up, though he went on to marry a high-flying civil servant (now in the Treasury) in 1978. And, shortly after he entered Parliament, a virus left him with tinnitus, a cruel combination of a permanent high-pitched noise and deafness in one ear. This can be a grievous handicap during debates and it is widely blamed for his disastrous Commons performance against Michael Howard last year, when the Home Secretary, seemingly in desperate trouble over his sacking of the prison service head, Derek Lewis, emerged triumphant. One (Tory) newspaper editor predicted that night that Straw would never recover. That was a premature judgement, but the performance diminished his status as an independent force on the front bench and tied him more closely to the party leader.

WHEN he entered the Commons, Straw's natural home was the Tribune group. But when he joined the front bench, it was as a member of the environment team headed by Jack Cunningham, a leading member of the old right wing of the party. The two remain close friends. By the time he was elected to the Shadow Cabinet in 1987, Straw's instincts were in tune with the modernising ethos of Neil Kinnock, another former Tribune member.

His first Shadow Cabinet job was education, an important position at a time when Kenneth Baker was turning the schools upside-down. He established then the principle that he has pursued as shadow home secretary: do not oppose for the sake of opposing. Just as he now strives to avoid any charge that Labour is "soft on crime" so, on education, he would not have his party branded as "soft on low standards". Labour, he insisted, favoured a national curriculum and pupil testing as much as if not more than the Tories. He distanced the party from the National Union of Teachers.

All this confirmed, to sceptical minds, that Straw was nothing more than a trimmer, permanently keeping in with the leadership. But he has shown that he can step out of line. In 1992, he wrote a pamphlet in favour of scrapping Clause IV, then still sacrosanct. The leader, John Smith, advised against publication; Straw went ahead regardless and was angrily rebuked. Then he criticised the monarchy, and proposed reforms that stopped only just short of republicanism.

Now, Straw seems almost the quintessential Blairite moderniser. Indeed, considering how many sacred Labour cows he has helped slaughter, it is surprising he has not been the focus of more criticism from the Labour left.

Perhaps this is because the modernising has limits. Straw has deep roots in the Labour movement and allies on all wings of the party. His opposition to Lib-Lab co-operation is well-known and had to be toned down to suit Mr Blair's espousal of political pluralism. While being a moderniser, he is not, as one ally put it "a trendy; he's not Islington and not Granita". He has a deep disdain for Hampstead, Guardian-reading liberals who want to dictate Labour policy through their civil liberties pressure groups.

Few can imagine Straw making a mistake like Harriet Harman over the education of his children. His own two teenagers go to Pimlico - not, admittedly, in the borough of Lambeth where he lives, but a state comprehensive all the same where Straw himself is an active governor.

Yet the home affairs brief has exposed weaknesses. The Lewis debate disaster was not entirely down to his hearing; his critics argue he should have started with a clearer idea of his target or avoided the debate altogether. And a notorious attack on "squeegee merchants" made him sound more crustily right-wing than any Tory backbencher. There is, indeed, a touch of the earnest, respectable suburbanite about him, and it is mercilessly satirised, in their Guardian columns, by Francis Wheen and "Bel Littlejohn". Many believe Straw would be better in government than in opposition. He has a great capacity for work, a lawyer's native caution and a knowledge of Whitehall few in the Labour Party can rival.

The broader criticism is of accepting the Conservative agenda on law and order to court the voters. But, while toughness on crime may be popular, it also happens to be what Mr Straw believes in; after all, burglaries and muggings hit working-class people hardest. The desire for an orderly society has threaded through his career from public-school prefect to parliamentarian. As one friend put it: "Don't forget: Jack is a barrister. He believes in the rules."

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