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Jack Straw pays tribute to Janet Anderson

Janet Anderson: 6 December 1949 – 6 February 2023 | Alamy

4 min read

Motivated by a detestation of social and economic injustice, Janet Anderson had a lust for life and a talent for cutting observations

Janet Anderson was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1949. Her father, Tom, was a full-time Labour agent, in the post-war Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton’s Bishop Auckland constituency.

In his biography of Dalton, Ben Pimlott quoted Tom Anderson as saying that Dalton had been the ”nastiest man he had ever met”.

Janet had an equally acerbic view of those whom she did not appreciate, something she acquired from her father, along with her politics. Like her dad, Janet was “straight” Labour, neither left nor right, with a detestation of social and economic injustice.

Janet went to the Regent Street Polytechnic to study business and languages – becoming fluent in French – and shorthand.

Moving to work as a secretary, at The Scotsman and The Sunday Times, Janet was introduced to the glory days of print journalism. She was both shocked and impressed by the louche habits of the journalists she had met, and their exceptionally long (and liquid) lunches.

What changed Janet’s life was when, in late 1973, she answered a small-ad for a PA for Barbara Castle, and got the job. In March 1974 Barbara was made secretary of state for health and social security, which was where I first met Janet. I had just been taken on by Barbara as her political adviser.

Through Barbara, Janet came to know Blackburn (Barbara’s constituency) and North-East Lancashire. She worked for Barbara until she retired from the Commons in 1979, and then for me, Barbara’s successor.

Janet won selection as Labour’s candidate for Rossendale and Darwen, the adjacent constituency to Blackburn. Janet got the Tory majority down to under 5,000 in 1987. In 1992 she had one of best results of all for Labour, squeezing in as MP by 120 votes. She did so by astonishing hard work – and by being able to enthuse an army of volunteers.

She was an astonishing source of gossip – she managed to hoover up every rumour going

In 1997, she bumped up her majority to close on 11,000, and would gently taunt me that she’d soon be overtaking my majority in the “safe” seat of Blackburn.

In 1997, Janet was made vice-chamberlain of the Household – a government whip with particular responsibility for reporting weekly to the sovereign on events in the Commons. She departed from the habits of her predecessors, who had generally signed off officials’ drafts. She wrote her own reports, spicy but appropriate. Her Majesty told Tony Blair how much she had appreciated these. After a year, she was appointed minister for tourism, broadcasting and film. She did this for three years, and fitted the job like a glove. It was she who “persuaded” the FCO to allow the producers of the 1999 Bond film The World in Not Enough to take shots outside MI6 headquarters. (I had often wondered!).

After the 2001 election, Janet was dropped from government, for no apparent reason. She took her return to the back benches with very good grace, serving on the DCMS and Home Office select committees.

Janet really enjoyed life, and a drink (or two). She was an astonishing source of gossip – she managed to hoover up every rumour going, and had cutting observations to offer about friend and foe.

In 2009, however, Janet hit a crisis. Details of her car claims for journeys to and from her constituency were published. These were very high. She repaid nearly £6,000, but her reputation was badly dented. At the 2010 election she lost by 5,000 to Conservative Jake Berry.

Again, Janet showed great resilience. She took work in public affairs and became something of a fixture in Portcullis House. But she acquired COPD and her health deteriorated. She died on 6 February, aged 73.

Jack Straw was Labour MP for Blackburn from 1979 to 2015

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