Labour should be backing Clarke, not trying to get him sacked

Yesterday Ed Miliband and the usually equally reliable shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, demanded that the prime minister should sack Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, over his remarks about rape and his proposals for changes in sentencing policy (not just in rape cases).  This was an unpardonable example of cheap party point-scoring at the expense of the public interest, and a serious error of judgement on both their parts.

The charge against Clarke by such authorities on social policy as the Sun newspaper and the right-wing Tory cave-dwellers is that by acknowledging the obvious truth that some rape cases are more serious than others, he implied that some rapes are not serious at all.  In fact he implied nothing of the sort, and if he initially expressed himself clumsily, he made ample amends subsequently by stressing, as anyone of sound mind must, that rape is serious in any circumstances.  The proposition that all rapes are equally serious is however plainly ridiculous.

On his policy suggestions (which is all they are at this stage), Ken Clarke made it amply clear that the purpose of increasing the sentence discount for pleading guilty at the first stage of a rape charge would be to give an incentive to defendants to plead guilty and thus spare victims the added trauma of questioning and cross-examination both during the investigations and often eventually in court.  Whether the increase in the discount from one-third to a half, where the guilty plea is entered at the earliest stage, is too great is a subjective matter on which decent people may legitimately disagree.  But it’s clearly not an idea whose airing could possibly justify dismissing the relevant minister.

By attacking Clarke and calling for his dismissal, Sadiq Khan and Ed Miliband made several significant errors.  They gave the impression that they thought Clarke had said things about rape which he had neither said nor implied.  They themselves gave the impression of opposing a possible policy change, designed to spare rape victims unnecessary further trauma, without even considering its possible benefits, purely to curry favour with the most reactionary of the feral tabloids and to score points against the government.  They denounced Clarke for seeking to reduce the numbers of people in prison by increasing the sentencing discount for pleading guilty, thereby strongly implying that Labour is against any reduction in the shamefully excessive prison population, and thus putting the party once again at odds with all right-minded people with a social conscience, with every authority on penal policy and with every civil rights organisation.  And they accused Clarke of being motivated purely by a desire to save public money by sending fewer people to prison — as if saving public money by a patently desirable liberalisation of prison policy was a crime.  This is a charge that Labour needs to abandon once and for all.

But worst of all, Messrs Miliband and Khan have failed to recognise that the best hope of long overdue penal reform in this country lies squarely in Ken Clarke remaining in office as Justice Secretary, with sufficient all-party backing to enable him to carry through the reform proposals in his Green Paper on sentencing policy issued a few months ago.  These include sensible practical changes designed to reduce the numbers of people unnecessarily sent to prison and above all to bring down the present horrifically high rates of reoffending.  They also include measures to reduce sharply the numbers of sentences of indefinite imprisonment — actually an indefensible system of preventive detention — and to reform the unjust, incompetent and repressive ways in which such sentences are administered.  If Ken Clarke is forced out of his job, it’s almost inconceivable that his successor would have the liberal instincts and political weight to get these desperately needed reforms past the reactionaries in the Tory party and the media.

For all these reasons, the action of the leader of the opposition and the shadow justice secretary in actually increasing the pressure on Clarke to resign (or on the prime minister to sack him) was wrong on every possible count.  Most of the reforms espoused by Clarke have been made urgently necessary by ill-conceived and illiberal measures for which a succession of disastrous New Labour home secretaries and a justice secretary were responsible.  By seeming to oppose their reform, the Labour front bench is giving the impression that the party leadership has learned nothing from the Labour government’s dreadful record on human rights and civil liberties, and will oppose any attempt to reverse it.

It’s time now for Labour to issue a ringing endorsement of Clarke’s reform proposals and to promise the beleaguered Justice Secretary full support against the right-wing enemies of reform.  Labour needs to acknowledge unambiguously that there are far too many people in prison who ought not to be there, that reoffending rates can and should be brought down and that there is no place in a decent democratic society for preventive detention.  In doing so, the party would be fulfilling the explicit promise in Ed Miliband’s acceptance speech at the party conference immediately after he was elected leader.  He knows, as we all do, that by returning to its historic commitment to justice, civil rights and enlightened penal policies, Labour will be accused by the Tories and probably the LibDems of doing a U-turn and admitting that Labour in government committed serious errors that now have to be put right.  We all know that Labour’s former home secretaries will fight tooth and nail to defend their shoddy records and avert any implied or explicit repudiation by Labour’s new leaders of the harm they did.  But we also know that when you have dug yourself into a hole, the best thing to do is to climb out of it, not to keep on digging.  In this context, that’s not only the best practical course:  above all, it’s the right one.

By their actions yesterday Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan have aroused the suspicion that they are once again heading down the wrong path on penal policy and reform.  If this continues, it will be a disaster for the party, and potentially also for the country and for justice.  Fiat justitia, ruat caelum!

Update (20 May 2011): I have now listened carefully to the whole of the Radio 5 Live interview of Ken Clarke by Victoria Derbyshire (, victoriad_20110518-1416a.mp3) and I have to say that I found nothing remotely objectionable in anything whatever that Clarke either said or implied.  The accusation that he said or even hinted that he regarded some kinds of rape as not serious is absolutely unfounded: indeed he said with emphasis at least twice that all rape is a serious crime deserving severe punishment.  He drew a distinction between different kinds of rape, some aggravated by violence and lack of consent and others not, as the explanation for sentences for the crime of rape varying in severity.  Anyone who professes to be offended by that must be living on another planet.


8 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    “…Ken Clarke made it amply clear that the purpose of increasing the sentence discount for pleading guilty at the first stage of a rape charge would be to give an incentive to defendants to plead guilty ..” 
    I’m hampered by not having seen exactly what Clarke said.  Was he in fact referring specifically to rape [in which case I would reluctantly accept the proposal for the sake of victims, for whom giving evidence in court is generally traumatic]  or to crimes of violence generally?  In the latter case, there seems likely to be pressure on the innocent victim of circumstance and mistaken identity to plead guilty because no-one’s going to believe him in court and he’ll be nailed anyway.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Tim. According to (e.g.), the 50% reduction in sentence for those pleading guilty at the start of the proceedings would apply across the board and not just to alleged rapists. It seems that one of the tabloids picked this up and screamed that Clarke was planning to let rapists out of jail after just a few months and Clarke pointed out that the incentive to those accused of rape to plead guilty from the start would save their victims a huge amount of pain and trauma. He also pointed out that the vast majority of those convicted of rape would receive long sentences which would keep them behind bars for many years even after the 50% reduction and the normal procedure under which prisoners are eligible for release on licence after serving half of their sentences. It will be interesting to hear what he says about it on Question Time this evening.

  2. Pete Kercher says:

    Brian, I salute your fair criticism of the leadership of the party that (perhaps undeservedly) attracts your continuing fidelity.
    It is always a sad day when the ones we have raised to the status of the “new hope” for a better future demonstrate that they, too, are incapable of breaking out of the tired mould of petty partisanship for its own sake. I was never at all convinced by Tweedledee (nor by Tweedledum, for that matter) and am not in the least surprised that he is now living up to my tawdry expectations.
    It is perhaps a sad fact of life that politicians, however admirable their aims when they embark on their missions, all seem to dig themselves into that hole you so rightly mention, then just go on digging. Lateral thinking and the flexibility so necessary to govern in a complex world appear to be something that one checks at the door, together with one’s coat and umbrella, when entering the House of Commons. But perhaps the worst thing is the patent inability to say those few simple words: “we made a mistake, we apologise, we have learned to do better”. Politicians like to think they have the blessing of pontificial infallibility… and they are the only ones who fail to realise how foolish it makes them look – and how nauseated we all are by the whole disgraceful show.
    I’ve often thought that the first politician to admit to having made a mistake may well get an unexpected landslide, just for admitting to being human.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Pete. I must admit that the performance (the right word, unfortunately) of the leader of the opposition at Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions strained my fidelity, as you call it, almost to destruction. It’s especially disappointing when Ed Miliband’s initial acceptance speech after his election as leader seemed to foreshadow exactly the willingness to acknowledge the party’s past mistakes which you rightly yearn for — and he explicitly mentioned mistakes in the area of civil rights.

  3. Michael Hornsby says:

    Brian, speaking as one who has voted almost an equal number of times for both the main political parties over the last 50 years or so, may I too express my admiration for a lifelong Labour stalwart’s refusal to take the “my party right or wrong” approach over the Ken Clarke and rape episode. Your criticisms of Miliband et al seem to me spot on. It is indeed extraordinary to see leading lights in the Labour Party (of all parties) joining the Daily Mail/Sun etc (of all papers) to attack the Tories (of all parties) for allegedly going soft on crime. And even more extraordinary that so few others seem to think that this is extraordinary.  It’s true of course that Ken C’s initial remarks might have been more felicitously phrased,  as he now admits,  but that is surely no excuse for wilfully misrepresenting them to imply something that he clearly – to any fair-minded person – did not mean.  In the ensuing synthetic hubbub his perfectly reasonable policy ideas have received hardly any proper analysis at all, even in the supposedly serious media where the coverage has, for example, almost entirely ignored the point that one of the purposes of his suggestions is precisely to spare rape victims the trauma of long-drawn-out investigations, police questioning and cross-examination in court by encouraging their attackers to plead guilty at an early stage. There may well be some legitimate counter-arguments to this approach but all we have had so far is mobs of  journalists pursuing Ken C and shrieking”Why do you think rape is not serious?”, cheered on by politicians who should know better. Not a pretty or edifying spectacle.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Michael. Another point that’s often overlooked in all this hubbub is that one of the purposes of suggesting the idea of a 50% discount for a guilty plea at the outset of proceedings is to increase the number of convictions for rape, in addition to sparing the victim unnecessary pain and trauma.

  4. John O'Sullivan says:

    Brian, thank you very much for such a solid and balanced exposition on this unfortunate mess.  It’s heartening to find your respondents agreeing with all the essential points you’ve made.  In particular, I find it disgusting that Milliband and Khan should, in effect, align themselves with the nauseating hysterical tabloid cave-dwellers.  I don’t know if the party commissariat takes much notice of what supporters like yourself write but this is one where they really need to be told to get a grip and bang very senior heads together behind closed doors before they consign the party to a long period in the wilderness.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this generous comment, John. I doubt if the Labour party bosses spend their time reading my own modest blog, but it would be surprising if many of their advisers didn’t keep a close eye on the leading Labour-leaning blogs including especially LabourList, which re-publishes many of my political posts here, including this one. Please see
    and in particular the comments appended to it, many of them stridently hostile to the line I have taken (as well as to Ken Clarke personally). It’s rather sad to see that from the names of the commenters there, it rather looks as if it may be “a gender thing”, which is not a pleasant thought.

  5. Richard Thomas says:

    The reaction by Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan to Ken Clarke’s clumsy words on rape show that the authoritarian, populist approach to crime and punishment originally exploited by Messers Straw and Blair remains Labour policy and as such,  it negates all the blandishments which Ed Miliband has used to entice Liberal Liberal Democrats to his progressive sheepfold.  Whether it was a cynical and opportunist attempt to embarrass Ken Clarke and those who strongly support his policy to move away from the ‘prison works’ line taken by successive Home Secretaries since Michael Howard or whether they actually believe what they said, it confirms to this old Liberal Democrat that we were right not to go near any form of coalition or arrangement to keep Labour in power.  They remain unfit for office.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Richard. I agree, sadly and reluctantly, with everything you say except for your conclusion. I’m not willing to write off Ed Miliband on the strength of a single surrender to populist opportunism, however disastrous and disappointing. Jackie Ashley makes a convincing case in today’s Guardian for cutting him some slack in spite of last Wednesday’s PMQs, here.

  6. keith morris says:

    Brian, I applaud wholeheartedly your defence of Ken Clarke both on his comments on rape and on his role as the only likely penal reformer. I share too your strong criticisms of Ed Miliband’s call for Clarke’s resignation.  As you know my confidence in Miliband’s leadership has never been great and my disappointment is therefore less than yours. I doubt very much if Miliband will change his stand and not just because he sees an opportunity to appear tougher than the Tories on law and order. (Jack Straw’s performance on Question Time showed that he gloried in Labour’s penal policy).   I am sure that he was well aware before he spoke of the likely outcry by feminist and rape victims’ groups, a factor not mentioned by you or in any of the comments. The Camden Labour councillor’s letter in  the Guardian of 20  May with its accusation of sexism set out the case against Clarke most forcefully but the Guardian’s women’s editor on 19 May and the Birbeck professor’s op-ed on 21 May took a similar line if less  aggressively. I understand that Harriet  Harman has a piece in the Guardian online today also attacking Clarke. These are voices Miliband will not wish to challenge.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Keith. Sadly, I agree with much of what you say, although I’m not yet ready to write off Ed Miliband on the basis of a single misjudgement, however disastrous. Harriet Harman’s article (here) is a bad case of smug band-waggoning, and she cynically and unscrupulously misrepresents Ken Clarke’s position for party advantage, but at least she doesn’t call for his resignation, and she does acknowledge that Clarke “believe[s] that people who get it wrong can turn over a new leaf”. However, after last Wednesday’s awful performance at PMQs, Labour is now on probation over its penal and justice policies. It will be fatally easy for Sadiq Khan and Ed Miliband to blow it in pursuit of approval from the most reactionary and intolerant sections of our society in parliament and the media, as Blair and his successive home secretaries almost invariably did. I hope that Sadiq, in particular, will remember that he has a personal record and reputation as a civil rights solicitor and Chair of Liberty to live up to. Even on the most cynical calculus of medium-term party interests, New Generation Labour needs to remember that it’s likely to need an alliance with the LibDems and perhaps other left-of-centre groups if it’s to stand any chance of leading a government after the next election. Positioning itself to the right of the Tories on law and order, prisons and penal policies could prove fatal to any hope of that happening, quite apart from alienating a sizeable section of Labour party members and supporters — and being simply wrong. 

  7. Michael Hornsby says:

    Brian – Just a footnote to your comment that “it may be ‘a gender thing'”: it was encouraging over the weekend to read several women columnists – among them Suzanne Moore, Rachel Cooke and India Knight – all defending Clarke on the rape brouhaha and broadly taking your and my line and that of your correspondents above. Helena Kennedy did the same thing even more impressively and strongly on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning show. Whether this will be enough to persuade Ed M that he has made a bad misjudgement, or Dave C to stiffen his resolve to stand by his beleaguered Justice Minister, remains to be seen of course.I wouldn’t, as they say, hold my breath.

    Brian writes: Thank you again, Michael. I agree that the pro-Clarke tendency has at last been putting its head above the parapet. As you say, it remains to be seen what effect this will all have on the line that the leadership decides to adopt. I think part of the problem is that Ed Miliband is conscious of not having been the first choice for leader of the majority of Labour MPs, that the New Labour old warriors such as Straw, Reid and Blunkett are still vocal and perhaps still carry some residual weight, and that he has got to move cautiously to try to gain the confidence of the PLP before he starts dismantling the shibboleths from the Blair/Brown era. The trouble is that each time he temporises to appease the old gang, as he did last week over Clarke and rape, the harder it will be for him to change course decisively later.

  8. Robert says:

    So rape some one, say whoops yes I did it get 50% off what is already a short sentence and your all happy because it’s saves the women from what getting the right sentence for an animal, god Almighty no wonder Labours in opposition and why Clark looks old tired and worthless.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this prime example of the level of argument of some of the critics of the Justice Secretary’s carefully thought-out and humane proposals. (His name is Clarke, incidentally.)