Jack Straw memoirs - part 4: 'War presented me with my toughest test at the polls' (From Lancashire Telegraph)
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Jack Straw memoirs - part 4: 'War presented me with my toughest test at the polls'
IN the fourth part in our five-day serialisation of Jack Straw’s autobiography Last Man Standing, he tells how emotions ran high during the 2005 general election — with some opponents accusing him of being a ‘war criminal’ . . .
Britain’s general election — and Tony’s third victory — was on May 5, 2005. It was the most difficult election since 1983, and the nastiest and most personal I had ever fought.
From the moment I had actively supported the war in Iraq I had known it was bound to be thus.
With nearly one in three voters of Muslim Asian heritage (and plenty of the white electors not keen on Iraq either) I was an obvious target.
Every one of the six other candidates was anti-war — including the Conservative, an articulate Asian lawyer from Dewsbury.
The candidate who attracted the most media attention was Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who had taken early retirement from the FCO. His campaign was well organised and high-profile. His campaign bus was an old Green Goddess military fire engine.
I’ve no idea what possessed him to believe that Blackburn voters would be more likely to vote for him if he drove around in this vehicle, but it was one of many reasons why his campaign foundered.
Blackburn demanded my constant attention.
Thank God for the Blackburn Labour Party. Without the teams of loyal members I’d have been done for.
My opponents could label me a ‘war criminal’ but they couldn’t touch me when it came to work for the town. Blackburn is a big village.
The Mill Hill ward, won by the BNP during the negotiations over UN 1441, is adjacent to the equally white Ewood ward.
This had been the BNP’s next target. Much of the housing was in poor condition, drug dealing was rife — and they had found a great issue. The Blackburn Royal Infirmary in Ewood ward had been moved to a brand new hospital complex a mile away. According to an urban myth spreading like wildfire, the now empty building was to become ‘the largest Islamic college in Europe’.
In late January 2003, whilst the Iraq drama was being played out in the Security Council, I had been in town for the usual weekend engagements.
We had arrived early at the advice surgery — bang next door to the Ivy pub, where I always go before Rovers’ games. I suggested that we popped in for a quick drink. I was pounced on by the regulars, demanding to know why ‘they’ — the council, the government, me — were not listening to their concerns about their area.
I told them I’d call a public meeting in the community centre as soon as I could.
On February 28, the place was packed. About 250 residents turned up, including many BNP supporters.
Bill Taylor, who was leader of the council as well as my agent, was on the platform with me, as were the chief executive, and the local police chief.
The atmosphere was threatening, and distrustful. Improvising in an attempt to calm the meeting, I said a careful note would be made of everything said; we’d write to everyone who signed the attendance sheet; and there would be a follow-up meeting nine months later.
Few of those present really believed that any of this would happen. But it did. My opponents piled activists into the constituency, and then set about a campaign of psychological, religious and sometimes physical intimidation.
The short message was that no proper Muslim could possibly vote for the infidel Straw. But my loyal supporters were undeterred. Virtually none of them had supported my position on Iraq; but I think they thought ‘Jack might be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.’
'Where are you?' asked the Russian minister. 'Knocking on doors in Mill Hill . . .'
I often spent hours each day in telephone calls with Colin Powell, Dominique de Villepin and Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister, as well as with the Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan and the other foreign ministers of the Security Council.
None of the other P5 foreign ministers held elective office. But I had my other day job to do: representing the people of Blackburn.
Frequently I’d have to excuse myself in the middle of an interview with a constituent to take an urgent call from a fellow foreign minister, in a back office of whichever community centre we were in.
In the autumn of 2002 there was a council by-election in a Labour ward. The BNP had put up a plausible candidate. Canvassing every single voter was imperative.
On a damp Friday evening I was door-knocking in a street of terraced houses. Three times I was pulled back to talk to other foreign ministers.
On the third occasion it was Igor Ivanov, wanting to discuss 20 words in the draft resolution. ‘Where are you speaking from?’ he asked in his deep, resonant Russian-accented English.
‘From a police van on Shorrock Lane, Blackburn, Igor. I’m going from door to door asking people to vote for our by-election candidate.’ ‘Ah Jack. In Russia we do not have that problem.’ At that moment, I wished that I didn’t have ‘that problem’ either.
Despite our efforts, the BNP won the seat, by 18 votes.
- © Jack Straw 2012 – Extracted from Last Man Standing, published by Macmillan. Readers can order copies of Last Man Standing by Jack Straw from The Silverdell bookshop, 61 Poulton Street, Kirkham, PR4 2AJ (phone 01772 68344 or email firstname.lastname@example.org) and get £4 off the rrp of £20 and free postage.
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