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Thursday, 22 February, 2001, 18:24 GMT
Jack Straw: Home Secretary

Nick Assinder

The job of home secretary is undoubtedly one of the toughest in any government.

And, as Jack Straw has discovered, it is particularly hard being a Labour home secretary.


He is still talked of by some as a potential Labour leader

Your brief covers some of the most contentious issues in the land - drugs, crime, immigration, prisons and police numbers, for example - and they are all areas which grab public attention and headlines.

It can be more difficult for Labour politicians because, all too often, they are trying to balance the competing demands from human rights activists and liberals in the party with the desire not to be seen as soft on law and order.

It was a balance previous Labour governments always had trouble with and, as a result, the Tories were widely seen as the natural party of law and order.

That was all supposed to change with New Labour and its constant cry: "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime."

But Mr Straw has had more than his share of problems living up to the slogan.

Hot water

General Augusto Pinochet
Pinochet landed Straw with headache
Violent crime is on the increase while police numbers have fallen and there are growing problems with asylum seekers.

On top of all that he has had to make hugely controversial decisions such as whether to let Mike Tyson box in Britain and whether to kick General Pinochet out of the country.

He eventually answered yes to both questions, which landed him in hot water with activists.

He insisted throughout both cases that he acted according to the strict letter of the law.


His statements on crime - such as expressing zero tolerance for "winos, addicts and squeegee merchants" - have regularly seen him attacked as illiberal

But the decisions did little to endear him to the left of the Labour Party who accused him of trying to outdo his Tory predecessor, Michael Howard, in the hard man stakes.

Equally, however, recent announcements on police numbers and violent crime have seen him attacked for failing to be tough enough.

Despite all this he is still talked of by some as a potential Labour leader.

Too old

He has always presented an image as a safe pair of hands and is trusted by the prime minister.

And there seems little doubt that, in the event of a leadership contest, he would come under pressure to throw his hat into the ring.

Whether he can actually make it to the top job is an open question, however.

Police recruits
Police numbers have fallen
Most in the Labour Party still see Chancellor Gordon Brown as the most likely successor to Tony Blair and argue that, by the time of another leadership contest, Mr Straw, now 54, would be too old.

For the man regularly seen as one of the most right-wing in the government, Mr Straw comes from a left-wing family.

His great grandfather took part in the battle against enclosures, his grandfather was a Labour activist and his father was a conscientious objector; his mother was also a socialist and pacifist.

He became active in the Labour Party at just 14 and by 1969 he had become the left-wing leader of the National Union of Students.

His parliamentary career started as adviser to Barbara Castle and he succeeded her to parliament in her old Blackburn seat in 1979.

He rapidly moved into the Neil Kinnock camp and later completed his journey to the right as a Blairite.

His statements on crime - such as expressing zero tolerance for "winos, addicts and squeegee merchants" - have regularly seen him attacked as illiberal.

But after his own brush with youth crime, when it was revealed his 17-year old son had sold cannabis to a newspaper reporter, he gained great public sympathy.

He took his son to the police station to face up to his crime and was painted as a typical father trying to do the best for his child.

The big test for him now will be the election campaign when he will constantly be under attack by the Tories over his law and order policies.

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