Why I trust Jack Straw to do the right thing

In liberal circles, there are few names more reviled than that of Jack Straw. His abrupt 11th-hour U-turn last week on the Police Bill will have done little to assuage liberal antipathy: they shudder and wave garlic in the air at the sound of his name. Some even threaten (idly, no doubt) not to vote Labour because of him. They say that there is not a Rizla paper between him and Michael Howard, so what's the point?

Are they right? I think not.

As for Jack Straw, he replies robustly and somewhat rebarbatively that all this liberal angst is a metropolitan fixation, and hints at Hampstead novelists and Stockwell leader writers, who suffer so much less from crime than the housing estate tenants of his own Blackburn. Certainly his own party does not regard him as a liability. Quite the contrary: he has never been in more demand to speak in constituencies up and down the land, and candidates know who the vote-getters are.

However, liberals (note the small "l"), are right to smell a rat when Labour politicians boast of their closeness to the working-class soil in defence of some populist bit of illiberal crowd-pleasing. Jack Straw has had a bad few days. While he might not have bent under liberal assault, once the Mail, Times and Telegraph joined forces with Liberty and other civil rights campaigners to condemn his support of the Police Bill, retreat was the only option. As a result of Labour's opposition, there is a good chance that the Bill will be wrecked when the House of Lords debates it today.

The Police Bill has been attacked as a fundamental assault on civil liberties. It gives chief police officers the right to break and enter and to bug without a warrant from an independent judge. They can do so in pursuit of any "serious crime", but definition is so loose it might include road protesters. It gives no protection to lawyers, doctors or journalists in their confidential dealings with clients or sources. A bad business.

However, once it is explained that these are not new powers but a codification of existing practice, a new light is shed on matters. Introduced by Labour in 1977, and confirmed in 1984 guidelines, this is, apparently, what the police have been allowed to do all along. These powers may be a serious infringement of rights and should never have been allowed. But the decibels of indignation that have greeted the Bill from some quarters recently seem overblown in the circumstances.

Even if the Bill was designed to smoke Labour out (which it wasn't), Mr Straw would have been foolish to jump into the trap, so offering Mr Howard a chance to claim that Labour was on the side of the criminals. Labour might have pleased us liberals. But what would have been the point if Mr Howard was helped back into power? Liberal words may please some of us mightily, but they butter few electoral parsnips.

As it is, Mr Howard failed to predict that the right-wing libertarians would come out against him: "the Englishman's home is his castle" is a British fundamental which excites many rarely-used constitutional nerves. (I think it is the pleasing word "castle" that gets them going, tweaking the Country Life and The Field wannabes.)

Some of us, though, might be a trifle less exercised about the Englishman's right to his castle than other Englishmen's right to a home. It is curiously unedifying to see the "rights" army out in force, apparently oblivious of the monstrous injustices perpetrated against armies of citizens every day of the week in our name: not just the lack of rights of those sleeping in the streets, but the mentally ill, alone and deranged in the community, destitute families unhelped by anyone, neglected children in care destined for a life of calamity, and so on.

So would Jack Straw be the monster Home Secretary the liberals fear? Trampling on rights, playing to the lowest law and order instincts? I think not. Now this may take quite a leap of faith, the way Labour are talking these days. Labour's party political broadcast last week stretched liberal tolerance past breaking-point. In it a young Daily Mail-reading couple talk about crime: "Paul: Number 28's been burgled. I bet it's that gang of yobbos again. Helen: Even if they catch 'em they get off scot- free. Voice over: Already crime has doubled under the Tories. Paul: If they get back next time there'd be more criminals getting off."

Just take that one line, "Even if they catch 'em they get off scot-free." With prisons overflowing and billions spent on new prison building, accusing the Tories of failing to punish those they catch is hardly reassuring about Labour's plans. Rhetoric of this kind is corrosive, poisoning the veins of the national bloodstream. How are people to think in a mature way about difficult social problems, their causes and cures, when debate is reduced to this mendacious nastiness?

Watching the party political broadcast, I asked a life-long supporter if this was the Labour party he knew and loved. "No," he said, "But the Labour party I know and love never won elections." So is this what it takes? Maybe.

In the end, it is by his actions as Home Secretary that we shall judge Jack Straw. I believe that when the time comes, he will do the right things, even if he deliberately makes the wrong noises while doing them.

Will he be illiberal? "Wait and see," he says with a trust-me grin. So which previous Home Secretary does he admire? Roy Jenkins, the great reformer. What monuments would he wish to leave behind him? First - to have brought the European Convention on Human Rights into the British Constitution. Second, catch more criminals and deal with them more effectively, according to the research that shows what works best. Current detection rates are so low that only 1 in 50 crimes get near a court. Third, he wants a reputation for successfully tackling racism, including repealing Mr Howard's Asylum Act and reducing the shocking black youth unemployment rates. Not a bad set of monuments.

He talks with most passion about reforming the chaotic youth justice system. He will drastically reduce school exclusions; catch and treat young criminals before they mature; process them through court immediately, instead of months later; introduce mentoring schemes and other projects that divert youth from crime. He will ensure good education in prisons and effective treatment and teaching for children in care: a quarter of prisoners come from care.

Do you believe him? For the time being, all you can do is look into his eyes, listen to the timbre of sincerity in his voice and hope for the best. "Wait and see" he says. We have no choice, but I am inclined to believe that Jack Straw is nothing like as illiberal as he pretends to be now.