Hanging in the balance

Would today's politicians dare to abolish capital punishment in Britain?

It's inevitable, perhaps, that once it was announced that the public were being invited to petition MPs to debate specific topics in Parliament, capital
punishment would be one of the first subjects on the agenda. Still, I'm surprised by the stir Guido Fawkes has managed to create by launching his
campaign
for its restoration for certain categories of murder, and I'm amazed to be writing about it here.

If only because of the European dimension, the prospect of a return to the noose is vanishingly remote, at least at the moment. But the death penalty retains a visceral attraction for many people. It's probable, though not certain, that a referendum would be won by its proponents: in most polls, it still attracts majority support. And support increases whenever a particuarly brutal or revolting murder is in the headlines. Capital punishment answers, as life imprisonment never can, the ancient, possibly biological, call for retributive justice, an eye for an eye.

Whether or not execution is actually a deterrent, calling for murderers to die can deliver an emotional satisfaction, almost a catharsis. It is a way of
expressing horror at a crime and belief in the implacability of justice.

The abolition of capital punishment in the UK was an elite project brought to a fruition at a time -- the 1960s -- when the liberal cause had the wind in its sails, when for many lawmakers going against public opinion on such an emotive issue seemed like an affirmation of their political vocation.

It would probably be very different today -- as it is, of course, in the United States. As things stand, the prospects of abolition in most states where it is retained do not look good. Politicians have too many votes to lose and most moves to restrict the death penalty have been made by the courts. It was the Supreme Court, for example, that as recently as 2005 ruled prevented execution for crimes committed by juveniles (Roper v. Simmons). (Although only just; and I'd recommend reading Justice Scalia's blistering dissent if you have the stomach for it.)

Some point to the USA's greater religiosity, the persistence of a frontier mentality, higher levels of violence or (most plausibly) to the country's more
populist democracy as explanations for the difference between them and us. But I suspect that it's largely chance rather than culture or public opinion, that explains the different paths taken by the United States and Britain on the issue of capital punishment. Because in truth there is not much difference. Polling on either side of the Atlantic shows roughly similar levels of public support for the death penalty: around 60 per cent. Michigan, one of several states without the death penalty, abolished it in 1846, making it the first English-speaking territory in the world to do so.

Capital punishment came close to being abolished altogether in the United States when the Supreme Court suspended executions in 1972 (its ruling in Furman v.Georgia). The moratorium lasted a mere four years, however. Since then, the US has been increasingly anomalous in the Western world -- a position that both the American right and the European left have both tended to view in the light of American distinctiveness. I'm not so sure.

Once it was abolished in Britain (in fact if not in law) in 1965, the reimposition of the death penalty became sufficiently unthinkable to sufficient members of MPs and opinion-formers to make it effectively permanent, even before European legislation put the matter beyond democratic reach. It now has all the appearance of historical inevitability. But legislative abolition was a major step, taken after a number of scandals had brought the possibility of miscarriage of justice to the forefront of the debate. It was done against public opinion by a political class more self-confident than today's and in a less media-saturated age.

Just a year later Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were convicted for the sadistic murders of five children. If their case, rather than that of Derek Bentley, had been at the forefront of the national debate, then the vote to abolish hanging might have been delayed. In France, the guillotine was only abolished in 1981, by which time Margaret Thatcher, a vocal supporter of the death penalty, was in Downing Street. It's easy to imagine the persistence of hanging into an era when New Labour's "tough on crime" rhetoric -- and a populist arms race with the Tories, fuelled by a tabloid press uninterested in the subtleties of penological theory -- has led to a massive increase in the prison population.

Under slightly different historical circumstances, the same political climate might easily have led to an increase in executions.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.