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.


4 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    I’m sure he’s a lovely man and a fine constituency MP, but Sadiq Khan has been an unimitigated disaster as Shadow Minister of Justice. The only question in my mind is whether he’s actually committed to some sort of Blunkett/Straw reactionary populist agenda, or he’s pitching for the Daily Mail vote out of pure cynicism. A third possibility would be that he wants to get rid of Clarke for reasons of political expediency, on the grounds that whoever replaced him would be less of a formidable political opponent, but I’m reluctant to believe that Labour criminal justice policy could be formulated quite as cynically as that.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Phil. My untutored guess is that Ed Miliband, having been elected leader without the support of a majority of Labour MPs, doesn’t feel that he’s in a strong enough position yet to take on the New Labour Old Guard, including those who played a leading part in the New Labour government’s prolonged assault on our civil liberties. I have no way of knowing whether that is a correct reading of the situation: or, if it is, whether Ed Miliband has instructed Sadiq Khan to avoid any risk, at whatever cost, of laying him open to the charge of being soft on crime or of a lurch to the left (“Red Ed”): or whether that play-safe attitude reflects Sadiq’s advice to his leader. It’s possible, although it seems unlikely, that Miliband’s position really is so weak that he dare not take the risk of disowning a sizeable chapter of the New Labour record in government — he does have the other Ed breathing down his neck, after all, and the truth is that civil rights and the enlightened treatment of criminals are not exactly top of the priorities on the doorsteps. But the result of this calculation, if that’s what it is, can’t escape the charge of cowardice, which in my view is the besetting sin of the great majority of our political leaders of the last few decades. So cowardice seems to me a better explanation of Labour’s abject line on penal reform than either cynicism or deeply rooted reactionary and authoritarian views, but that may be a case of wishful thinking on my part.

    Cowardice is of course a character flaw of which no-one could ever accuse Ken Clarke, but his fearlessness in telling the truth about the ghastly Theresa May and about the Human Rights Act has exposed his chest to the political knives of his many enemies, tragically including those on Labour’s front bench. The question now is whether the LibDems will come riding to his rescue. Don’t bet on it.

  2. Pete Kercher says:

    I often read some obviously Schadenfreude-inspired “I-told-you-so” digs from Labourites with a superiority complex (God knows where they get it from…) at those genuine Liberals who are often dismayed by their party’s performance in your coalition goverment. Of course I find myself wondering how they can square certain policies with their consciences. But then I tell myself it’s a question of Realpolitik.
    Then I see things like this from you and find myself wondering, not for the first time, how someone like you can bear continuing to be a bedfellow with the likes of such unabashed Stalinists and borderline fascists as the Straws and Blunketts of New Labour.
    Ultimately, I suppose that these are the two sides of the same coin, in which those with a real desire to improve society find themselves being exploited with greater or lesser cynicism by the opportunist manipulators of Realpolitik, whatever convenient hue they adopt for the occasion, learning from that master of self-centred careerism Tony Blair.
    I suspect that it is not just a residue of occult New Labour influence on the current Labour’s Front Bench that is at work here, but the awful and apparently inexorable grind of absolutism that appears to have taken hold of the entire parliamentary system in the UK (and not only in the UK).
    Whatever labels we give ourselves (your kind of Labour, my kind of Liberal and I should imagine that there are still some honest Tories out there somewhere), we are a minority and should maybe stop a moment and focus more on working together to save democracy, before it’s too late, rather than on continuing the tired old slanging matches that really just mean we are following the latest opportunist Pied Piper in the tired old name of party solidarity.

    Brian writes: Many thanks for this, Pete. Alas, I can’t disagree with much if anything of what you say. But for better or worse, we’re stuck with the party system, and we don’t enjoy the luxury of choosing to support a party every line of whose policies and every one of whose leaders we’re able to commit ourselves to without reservation. All the serious parties are infested with unprincipled and cynical careerists who can plead the excuse for endless compromise of the reality that it’s impossible to change society for the better if you’re so simon-pure that you’ll never get elected.

    In the end we all have to hold our noses and select a party which on balance has (or has once had) the core values that most closely resemble our own, most of whose policies, if carried out, would do more good than harm, whose leaders are mostly men and women of apparent integrity and courage, and which has a sporting chance of being elected to government with a sufficient majority to enable it to honour its promises. In my case that can only mean the Labour party, although I respect (and in some ways envy) those for whom the LibDems better fit the bill. The idea, at which you wistfully hint, of a new party for all those of us who are disillusioned almost to the point of physical nausea by the dismal current performance of the parliamentary leaderships of all the political parties without exception, is enormously tempting. But is it really a practical and plausible possibility? I’m very sorry to say that I think it’s not.

  3. Pete Kercher says:

    A very sober response, Brian, and one that I think is also realistic in the UK – at present.
    Of course, with more than 30 years of Italy under my belt, the view I take of politics and professional politicians is perhaps even more jaundiced than had I stayed in the UK. I’m sure that what you (probably rightly) call my “wistful hint” at a new party is more likely to happen in delusion-beset Italy, or maybe even in the USA with its Occupy Wall Street movement, than in the UK of today. Your socieyt is not quite close enough to the edge to make such courageous moves, at least not yet. For some other countries, I suspect it’s not so much a matter of courage as necessity.
    Of course, the question would then be just how long it would take the usual bunch of cynical opportunists to jump on the bandwagon of such a new party. Split seconds come to mind.
    Ultimately that silly old fart of a head-in-the-clouds theorist from Trier did get one or two things right (but only one or two, mind), though I thoroughly dislike the idea that one of them appears to be that things really do have to get a lot worse, collapse even, before we can be stirred to make them get better.

    Brian writes: Thank you again. Of course my own comments, like yours, are inevitably coloured by the experience of the countries we live in and know best, and for us in Britain a certain very cautious optimism may arguably still be in order, in spite of everything. But we certainly have to work at it.

    As for that silly old fart from Trier (limerick, anyone?), I think his key observation was probably spot on: that despite all the rhetoric, class interests are at the root of politics, as indeed we see every day from the behaviour of our Tory-led government and its funders and patrons, who are governing with more nakedly obvious attention to the protection of business, finance and the rich than we have seen for decades. But as you say or imply, his prediction that capitalism’s internal contradictions would lead to its implosion and proletarian revolution seems as far from fulfilment as ever, unless we really have now reached a historic turning-point, with double-dip recessions leading to an unprecedented global slump. Somehow I still can’t quite believe that this is about to happen, despite the pig-headedness, economic illiteracy, head-in-the-sand frivolity, ideological partisanship and sheer arrogant stupidity of our governing class and its approach to the crisis of capitalism which confronts it.

  4. Surreptitious Evil says:

    “Sadiq denounces cuts in police numbers when he must know there’s no correlatio­n between front line police numbers and crime levels.”
    There is also, as with most large bureaucracies (whether public or private sector) very little correlation between the pay budget and the number of front line employees.
    Clarke, of course, while I agree with what I think was his underlying point, was incorrect on the law. From the BBC transcript:
    Clarke: No it’s not, and if an 18-year-old has sex with a 15-year-old and she’s perfectly willing, that is rape. That’s ’cause she’s underage, can’t consent. Anybody has sex with a 15-year-old, it’s rape. So what you and I are talking about, we’re talking about a man forcibly having sex with a woman and she doesn’t want to. That is rape.
    Of course, having sex with a willing 15 year old is a s9 SOA2003 offence “Sexual activity with a child” not either the s1 or s5 “Rape” offences. I have no idea whether the BBC’s stat of the 5 years “average sentence for rape” was correct or whether, under the then proposals, that would have meant an average 15 months served. I do know that the sentencing guidlines have the starting point, for a single-time rape by a single offender of an over-16 year old, at 5 years, so, unless they’ve changed in the last few months, I, like Clarke, find it difficult to believe that this starting point is the average. The
    rel=”nofollow”>latest MOJ statistics show the average sentence for all “sexual offences” as just over 48 months, so, given that rape is the most serious crime in this category (and we have endless Daily Wail stories of child porn possessors getting “let off”), again, I find the 5 years figure doubtful.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. On your first point, I think it’s legitimate to distinguish the relationship between pay budgets and numbers of employees from that between the numbers of policemen and the level of crime. On your second, I seem to remember having read extensive debate in the print media of whether having sex with a 15-year-old girl is or is not technically rape, but you certainly make a good case for the proposition that it’s not. However, I don’t think this affects the main point: Ken Clarke was unquestionably right to point out that rapes differ in seriousness and that to deny that obvious truth is ludicrous.