Tory prison U-turn is an opportunity for Labour
Kenneth Clarke’s ‘hand wringing’ prison policy isn't progressive - it's a classic Conservative attack on state provision
This has been a year of surprises. Leeds knocking Manchester United out of the FA Cup. Tomas Berdych beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon. But now perhaps we have the biggest turn-up of them all: Labour attacking a Conservative-led government for being soft on crime.
Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke's dramatic reversal of the Tories 17-year-old 'Prison Works' policy has not only left grassroot Tories
fuming: it's upset Labour too.
Writing in the Daily Mail, former Home Secretary Jack Straw accused Clarke of returning to the flawed liberal "hand-wringing approach to crime", which marked a succession of post-war Home Secretaries before Michael Howard.
Straw praises Howard, a one-time bogeyman of the liberal left, for ushering in a new get-tough era where an increased number of offenders were sent to prison and, according to Straw, crime rates consequently declined. Now it seems those days are gone.
While David Cameron tries to persuade Tory voters that not much has changed, there's no denying that Kenneth Clarke's anti-prison pronouncements amount to a massive U-turn.
As yesterday Daily Mail's editorial reminded us, during the election campaign, the Tories repeatedly spoke of the need to put more offenders behind bars and pledged to create 5,000 more prison places.
And on one of the head-to-head television debates David Cameron expressly criticised the Liberal Democrats' opposition to short prison sentence terms.
For Jack Straw, the Tory U-turn on prisons is another example of the 'crazy world of coalition government', coming not long after the Liberal Democrats' U-turn on VAT rises.
But it could also be argued that the anti-prison stance is consistent with the socially and economically liberal ethos of the new government.
For what unites both David Cameron's Conservatives and Nick Clegg's Orange Book Liberal Democrats is their anti-statism. Both men are using the need to cut the deficit to roll back the frontiers of the state, much further than even Margaret Thatcher would have dared.
Leftists who find themselves nodding in agreement with Kenneth Clarke’s anti-prison statements are well advised to read the small print.
The Justice Minister’s proposed reforms, in which the private sector will be paid to rehabilitate prisoners, are only the latest in a series of measures announced by the coalition designed to weaken state agencies and allow the private companies to do jobs traditionally done by government. The Royal Mail, in state hands since its inception in 1516, is being lined up for sale. The Government's new Work Programme, announced earlier this week, will be run by private firms. While the police, the most visible arm of the state, face major cutbacks in numbers.
Traditional conservatives who want to see more bobbies on the beat, more criminals sent to jail and who have no great desire to see the Royal Mail - or indeed their public libraries - go the way of Britain’s railways and public utilities, are likely to be enormously disappointed by what a Conservative-led government, tied to social and economic liberalism, has in store for them.
But for Labour, the coalition's assault on state provision presents a great opportunity.
To capitalise, the party needs to ditch Blairism and oppose any further privatisation of the public sector. And it needs to appreciate that the truly progressive stance in British politics today, is paradoxically a 'conservative' one. It's progressive - and conservative - to defend the NHS, the Royal Mail and public libraries.
It's progressive - and conservative - to say that British troops should be used to defend the Realm and not take part in pre-emptive strikes on countries that have done us no harm. It's progressive - and conservative - for the state to continue to provide services for the public and protect its citizens from violent crime.
A Labour Party that opposed Kenneth Clarke's prison plans, the potentially disastrous cutbacks in police numbers and the sell-off of the Royal Mail would find itself in tune with vast swathes of 'conservative' Britain.
The prospect of the Daily Mail endorsing Labour at the next election might seem far fetched. But then who'd have thought that less than two months on from the last election, the same newspaper would be praising a former Labour Home Secretary in its editorial and slamming a Conservative one. If Labour play their cards right, and work alongside the 'forces of conservatism' in opposing the extreme economic and social liberalism of the coalition, the rewards could be huge. ·
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