In the fledgling days of his political career, Jack Straw led the national student movement through a great period of change that spanned two governments and saw the UK voting age lowered to 18.
Many of NUS’ past presidents have gone on to fulfil successful political careers, but none as distinguished as that of Jack Straw. One of only three people to have served in cabinet throughout Labour’s premiership from 1997 to 2010 – including stints as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Lord High Chancellor – Straw is one of UK politics’ most senior figures. He talks to Spotlight about his NUS presidency and how it influenced his further political career.
Straw’s journey in politics began on-campus at Leeds University in the mid-late 1960s. A talented emerging student activist, he became chair of the Leeds University Labour Society before being elected as president of Leeds University Union in 1966. But he was destined for a bigger stage.
“I was very interested in politics, both with a capital P and a small P,” says Straw. “I had become active in Leeds; I was also discontented with the then leadership of the National Union of Students, which I thought was too complacent.
“A contemporary, who later sadly died – David Widgery – accused the leadership of ‘Tio Pepe democracy’ and said it ‘had all the passion of an ashtray’.”
He explains his aspirations to become the leader of the national movement: “At the time, there was mounting interest in the issue of student representation … I thought that more active leadership could make a difference.”
Straw first stood for the NUS presidency in 1968, losing to centre-right candidate Trevor Fisk, but in so doing became deputy president. A year later he stood once more against Fisk, but this time he seized victory by an emphatic margin of 273 to 181, one of the largest majorities for some years.
“There was plain discontent with the fact he was just keeping things as they were, so I decided to stand,” recalls Straw. “The second time I was more experienced, and the discontent with the existing regime had become greater.
“It was a very hard-fought campaign, but I had brilliant campaign organisers. One of whom was a guy called David Cowling who is now the BBC’s political analyst, and the other guy was called Peter Geldard, who later on became an Anglican vicar then actually became a Catholic vicar.”
The Student Vote
Straw remains to this day the only person to have beaten an incumbent NUS president in the national leadership election. This is particularly significant given that Straw’s election represents a firm shift in NUS’ political stance; he became the first in a long line of left-leaning leaders, bringing to an end the long dominance of the centre-right in student politics.
In 1969, the voting age in the UK was lowered from 21 to 18. This had a major impact on NUS’ relations with Parliament and the public, as politicians scrabbled for the student vote – underlining one of the most salient developments during Straw’s presidency.
“NUS always had pretty good pretty good access to ministers,” says Straw, “but then we had the change in voting age.
“There was an issue whether students could vote from their respective university or college address – I think a returning officer refused a registration. We took that issue to the court of appeal and won, which is why students can be registered – and most are – in two places at once.
“That meant there was suddenly a great interest in the student vote, because it was obviously much easier to organise, and frankly much higher turnout among students if they were voting from their colleges.”
As a result of the change, Jack Straw became the first NUS president to visit 10 Downing Street in office, after he was invited by then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The implications for the government were huge, and Wilson was keen to establish how he could mobilise the student vote – particularly in marginal constituencies.
“It had a palpable effect on the two key parties – the Liberals weren’t that significant at the time – until the election which took place in 1970,” explains Straw. “There was a body called ‘Students for Labour Victory and an equivalent one for the Conservatives.”
Recalling his Downing Street invitation, he says: “I was included on the cover of the Sunday Times as part of what you would now call the ‘young celebs’. Was it daunting? I didn’t feel daunted – I felt pretty privileged to have done so, and off we went.”
Straw’s presidency was also marked by a change in government, from Harold Wilson’s Labour Party to Ted Heath’s Conservatives (which included Margaret Thatcher as education secretary), half-way through his tenure in 1970. The shift in national politics presented a significant challenge to NUS, in that it demanded a high level of versatility in negotiation and interaction.
Straw highlights negotiating with two governments as a crucial feature in his development as a leader and politician: “With the Wilson government, we were having to deal with the consequences of a squeeze in public spending and various cuts – plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!
“With the Heath government, we were having to deal with proposals for there to be a register of students’ unions to control them, and proposals for student loans. We managed to see off both of them.”
He cites NUS’ victories against the Heath-Thatcher plans as his proudest achievement as president. “The conservatives had become disturbed by student activity,” he recalls. “They thought, actually wrongly, that students were misusing public money on ‘political activities’, and they had proposed a register of students’ unions that would parallel a register of trade unions.
“Bear in mind that, at the time, one of the predominant domestic issues was industrial relations,” he continues. “Anyway, we managed to defeat that; then they wanted to introduce the student loan scheme, and we managed to defeat that as well.”
The experience of leading the national student movement proved to be invaluable, as Jack Straw’s political career flourished. “It was enormously influential, and in many respects it was the best education I ever received,” he says.
“It was managerially challenging, because at the age I was – 23 – I found myself running a medium-sized organisation with 200 staff, and by definition most of the people were older than me.
“I think everyone finds that it was a very intense experience, and I think those that go through with that experience are able to decide whether they are really interested in the politics in the heat in the kitchen or not.”
Upon being elected, Straw outlined that his objective as president was to make NUS ‘respected but not respectable’. He elaborates on this: “Respected for the way we acted, so absolutely firm that we should never, ever use violence and condemned it whenever it took place. Respected for the arguments that we advanced, and the intellectual strength of the case we made. But not ‘respectable’, because we were not there as young members of the establishment.”
The national movement certainly underwent unprecedented change under Straw’s leadership. NUS was thrust into the centre of student politics, and developed campaigning techniques that would set the pace for a new generation of broad left student leaders.
Reviewing his tenure, The Times concluded that Straw was ultimately successful in his objective: “The consternation that greeted his election in 1969 and the fears of a left wing take over have long since been replaced by respect and admiration among those who have known and dealt with him. When he took office he said it was his aim to make NUS respected but not respectable, and most people, except for blimpish columnists, would acknowledge with gratitude that he has largely succeeded.”
After completing his term of office in June 1971, Straw completed his bar finals before serving as a councillor in Islington and then deputy leader of the Inner London Education Authority, where the leader Ashley Bramall described him as a “brilliant young man”. He was eventually elected to Parliament as MP for Blackburn in 1979.
In 1987, Straw took on his first shadow cabinet post as he was appointed education spokesman. He continued to rise through the Labour Party ranks in opposition, serving as Shadow Environment Secretary under John Smith from 1992-4, and replacing Tony Blair as Shadow Home Secretary when Blair was elected party leader in 1994. When Blair’s Labour swept into power in 1997, Straw was appointed to the frontline of the new cabinet as Home Secretary.
Straw went on to serve a number of key posts in the 1997-2010 Labour government, including Foreign Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons and Secretary of State for Justice. In August 2010, he stepped down from frontbench politics, but remains one of the most experienced MPs in Ed Miliband’s opposition.
Despite his long and decorated career in frontline politics, Straw is remarkably humble about his achievements: “I think I have been incredibly lucky in terms of my political career, and it’s not over.”
In the years since Straw left NUS, the challenges for the student movement have evolved significantly. “I think they have become more difficult for a number of reasons,” he says. “One is that heads of universities and colleges became more skilful in handling student unrest, because essentially they just got caught in the headlights when we were there, and often made confessions which I think they would not now make.
“I was very lucky in the sense that I caught a rising tide of emerging student consciousness and rebelliousness, and that was going on across Europe and the United States as well. It was relatively easy to get public attention, which we did in large amounts.”
With the emergence of tuition fees and huge shifts in the way the education sector is funded, today’s students do not enjoy the same stabilities as their counterparts from Straw’s years in office.
He says: “There was a high level of financial security among students, and at that time almost everyone assumed correctly that they would get a job.That’s very different from today.
“Our numbers were far fewer, bear in mind. When I went to university, which was in ’64, only 7 per cent of the age group went to university, and only a tiny proportion of those from backgrounds like mine, which was being brought up on a council estate, so the difference is very striking.”
Last year’s education funding debate brought NUS to the heart of the public’s attention in a way not seen for many years, and Straw believes that today’s student leaders have handled themselves very well: “I think NUS has conducted itself very skilfully. I was really pleased that the leadership was much more prominent than it had been able to be.”
Straw says that today’s focus should be to “carry on with NUS’ strength, which is always basing its case on careful research and making strong arguments on that basis”.
With a much tougher scenario for students, Straw believes that it’s more important than ever to have a strong NUS and strong students’ unions. “It’s of crucial importance in representing students’ interest and helping individuals; helping students collectively and individually,” he says. “But it’s also of great importance building interest and skills in our democracy.”
Offering one final piece of advice to aspiring student leaders in today’s education landscape, Straw says: “Be yourself, and always think carefully about the case you are making.”
This article was featured in the September 2011 edition of Spotlight. If you do not currently receive Spotlight, email firstname.lastname@example.org