Labour still stuck to the right of Ken Clarke when support for his reforms is urgently needed
Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, has again attacked Ken Clarke’s humane, courageous and progressive programme of penal reforms designed to reduce our bloated prison population, improve prison conditions by enabling prisoners to work and undergo rehabilitation training, provide treatment instead of punishment to victims of drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness, and expand non-custodial community sentences which are demonstrably more effective in deterring re-offending than imprisonment, as well as saving public money. Clarke plans to abandon Labour’s deplorable plans for building yet more prison cells and to replace the indefensible system of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) which leaves thousands of people indefinitely behind bars in preventive detention long after they have paid their debt to society. Sadiq grudgingly accepts some of these objectives but repeatedly accuses Clarke of being motivated purely by a desire to save money and of seeking to undermine the Labour government’s achievements.
His latest attack on Clarke and his reform programme appeared in Huffington Post Politics on 6 October. Despairing of achieving anything by discreet private lobbying and argument, I finally went public with an exasperated comment on the Huffington website:
This is a seriously disappointing article. Kenneth Clarke, the only established liberal Tory in the Cabinet, proposes reforms in penal policy that are urgently necessary, mostly to repair damage done by successive New Labour home secretaries, and which include sharply reducing prisoners’ numbers at a time when (as every penal reform expert agrees) up to half of the prison population shouldn’t be there; giving work to those who genuinely need to be imprisoned; and replacing the monstrous system of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs). Sadiq Khan, an excellent constituency MP, opposes or carps at all these proposals. He misrepresents Clarke’s figure (3,000) for reducing the prison population as a target when it’s clearly an estimate, and attacks Clarke’s proposed abandonment of the mindless New Labour plan to build yet more prisons. Sadiq denounces cuts in police numbers when he must know there’s no correlation between front line police numbers and crime levels. He denounces Clarke’s acceptance of cuts in his departmental budget when he knows that such cuts would be unavoidable under any government, and many of them could be achieved by progressive reforms.
At a time when Ken Clarke’s ministerial future is in jeopardy because of his public exposure of Theresa May’s dishonest demand for repeal of the Human Rights Act, Labour should be defending him and his liberal reform proposals against the assaults of reactionary Tory MPs and tabloids. If Clarke goes, all hope of progressive penal reform goes with him. Please think again, Sadiq!
Progressive and humane penal reform policies were once a central element in Labour’s core values. A series of reactionary and illiberal New Labour home secretaries abandoned those principles, over-reacting to terrorism and tabloid demands for ever harsher punishments for offenders with a string of authoritarian measures that filled our prisons to bursting point, allowed re-offending to soar, and laid the foundations for authoritarian behaviour by the police and the security authorities, criminalising protest and introducing an indefensible (but little recognised) system of preventive detention that’s unprecedented in peacetime in the modern era. Much of the present Justice Secretary’s reform programme is designed to repair some of this damage. Sadiq Khan said, without a trace of irony, in his speech to the Labour party conference on 28 September this year:
I believe we should all worry that this Coalition Government threatens to undermine our hard work.
In his speech to the previous year’s Conference on 28 September 2010, immediately after his election to the Labour leadership, Ed Miliband famously promised to change the party’s direction, not only on Iraq but also on civil liberties and human rights:
[W]e must always remember that British liberties were hard fought and hard won over hundreds of years. We should always take the greatest care in protecting them. And too often we seemed casual about them. Like the idea of locking someone away for 90 days – nearly three months in prison – without charging them with a crime. Or the broad use of anti-terrorism measures for purposes for which they were not intended. They just undermined the important things we did like CCTV and DNA testing [sic]. Protecting the public involves protecting all their freedoms. I won’t let the Tories or the Liberals take ownership of the British tradition of liberty. I want our party to reclaim that tradition. …when Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high re-offending rates, I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime…
When is Ed Miliband going to remind his shadow Justice team of that seminal promise, which indeed Sadiq might well have drafted? You will search Sadiq Khan’s Conference speech last month, and his Huffington Post article, in vain for any evidence that he remembers it. Instead, in his own 2011 Conference speech, Sadiq saw fit to reopen the controversy over Clarke’s remarks about rape:
Remember his insensitive and offensive comments on rape? On Radio 5Live, and in response to the statement “rape is rape, with respect?” He said, and I quote: “No, it’s not”. Mr Clarke, let me tell you rape is rape.
Ken Clarke’s ‘offence’ had been, you’ll remember, to point out the obvious truth that while all rapes are serious crimes, some are self-evidently more serious than others, a fact recognised in the wide variations in rape sentences as well as by common sense. Either Sadiq doesn’t understand that, which seems unlikely in an experienced lawyer and former Chair of Liberty: or he does, in which case….
By their unremitting and undiscriminating attacks on an enlightened and humane Tory Justice Secretary, the Labour front bench have made it easier for the prime minister to surrender to the cave-dwellers on the Tory back benches, to an unprincipled and populist home secretary, to the hangers-and-floggers in the country and their favourite tabloids, by sacking Clake from his job. If the LibDems, both in and out of the coalition government, had been brave enough to make support for Clarke and his reform proposals a condition for continuing LibDem membership of the coalition, and if the Labour opposition had similarly been brave enough to honour Ed Miliband’s promise when he was elected leader, they would have hugely improved the chances of Ken Clarke surviving the current reactionary campaign against him and thus enhanced the chances of success for his reforms. How sad and how ironical that in this major conflict, the shadow Justice Secretary has consistently positioned Labour well to the right of a Conservative minister and thus helped to jeopardise all hope of penal reform for a generation!
Full disclosure: Sadiq Khan is my MP, and one whom I both like and respect. He’s an excellent, conscientious and hard-working constituency MP. He has been patient with my stream of appeals and complaints and generous with his time in listening to them. He knows, as I do, that my despair at the party leadership’s failure to abandon New Labour’s illiberal policies on law and order and civil liberties is widely shared in the Labour party’s grass roots. As Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign manager and adviser, he will certainly not have forgotten that inspiring promise in Ed’s first speech as leader. It’s hard to dismiss the suspicion that some of those who lumbered the party with such a dismal record on civil rights and liberty, the Straws and Blunketts and others, continue to exercise a baneful influence on the Labour front bench, mainly in a misguided attempt to defend their own records in office. If so, it’s surely well beyond time for them to exercise restraint instead of influence. Mr Miliband might usefully indicate to them that their time is past and that, in an echo of Attlee’s famous words to the then party Chairman, Harold Laski, a period of silence on their part would be welcome.