Mehdi Hasan: Is Blair the best man to give advice to Labour in 2011?

Tony's back in town - but should he be speaking to Labour?

Tony Blair is back in Britain to promote the paperback edition of his 2010 memoir, A Journey. The permatanned ex-premier has been doing the rounds of the television and radio studios, offering his views on the Arab Spring as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury's guest-edit of the New Statesman.

He also offered this piece of advice to Ed Miliband, the current Labour leader. From the Times (£):

What he will say is that a progressive party will never win unless it shows that is "in favour of the business community, in favour of entrepreneurs, of enterprise".

Wise words, I guess, from a man who is making millions from his various corporate gigs. But why should Miliband or any other Labour politician heed his advice? The media, and the Cameroons, are still in awe of the former premier. But here are three points worth briefly considering before taking any political advice from Tony Blair in 2011:

1) On Blair's watch, Labour lost four million votes between 1997 and 2005. Lest we forget, in the 2005 general election, Blair was re-elected with a vote share of 35 per cent -- that's less than the majority-less Cameron achieved in 2010. Blair won in 2005 because his opponent was Michael Howard.

2) When Blair left office in the summer of 2007, his personal poll ratings were falling -- and so, too, were the Labour Party's. As the authors of the new book, Explaining Cameron's Coalition, argue, "Blair's ratings were falling from 1997 and that, even if Labour had not changed leader, it is likely that Blair's would have been as low as Brown's were by 2010."

3) Blair invaded Iraq. Regardless of whether you think it was right or wrong to topple Saddam Hussein, politically, the war was a massive misjudgement on Blair's part. It split his party and the country, cost him his political capital, wrecked his reputation and undermined any legacy he might have hoped to leave behind as a three-time election winner. As the former Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell once put it, "Mary Tudor had Calais engraved on her heart. Blair will have Iraq engraved on his heart and there is no escaping it."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.