We'll miss Ken Clarke as justice secretary - he's saved money and lives

Ken Clarke was making good on the promise of a "rehabilitation revolution".

There are two fewer people in prison than a year ago. That might not sound particularly significant, but just a few years ago even maintaining a lid on the prison population would have been unthinkable. Year on year the figures would jump ever higher, so that the number of men, women and children in prison in England and Wales doubled since the mid-1990s. Now the trend of expansion is being slowed and may yet be halted, even reversed. Particular strides have been made in cutting the number of children in prison, very few of whom should be there at all.

Not all of this can be put down to Ken Clarke. He comes in a long tradition of Conservatives who believe in a compassionate, small-government and evidence-based approach to cutting crime. It was the marriage of these attitudes with the progressive criminal justice policies of the Liberal Democrats that made the justice section of the Coalition Agreement so clear. They promised a "rehabilitation revolution" involving "overhauling the system of rehabilitation to reduce reoffending and provide greater support and protection for the victims of crime."

But it was Ken Clarke who began making good on these promises. By encouraging greater use of rehabilitative community sentences and introducing a plan to get prisoners to do an honest day’s work rather than lie in bed all day, he has saved money and saved lives.

Some progressives are concerned around the appointment of Chris Grayling, who certainly represents a change in ideological background. However, any employment minister should know that you can’t tackle worklessness without a profound understanding of its underlying causes. The same goes for crime. Indeed, in 2009, the new Justice Secretary said “We are much too inclined to put prisoners into a cell for eighteen hours or more a day, and to do much too little to deal with root problems in their lives – like addiction, lack of education, or mental health problems – or a destructive combination of all three.”

I hope he remains true to this ambition. He must, above all, resist the calls of those who back a return to policy based more around a Daily Mail online survey than academic evidence and compassion. In a society where more people are imprisoned than anywhere else in Western Europe, every prison place costs in excess of £40,000 each year and the vast majority of released prisoners reoffend in their first year, it’s clear that our prisons are wasting lives and taxpayers’ money.

At the Howard League for Penal Reform, we will work with Mr Grayling wherever possible to build a society with less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Find her Twitter as @FrancesCrook, and the Howard League for Penal Reform as @thehowardleague

Ken Clarke, moved from the Ministry of Justice, now becomes minister without portfolio. Photograph: Getty Images

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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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