Ken Clarke is right to challenge “prison works”

As Justice Secretary bravely intervenes, all Labour can do is parrot Michael Howard and cry: “Prison

Kenneth Clarke's plan to reduce the number of criminals sent to prison has led to the alarming but increasingly familiar spectacle of Labour attacking the Conservatives from the right.

In an article for today's Daily Mail, Jack Straw in effect endorses Michael Howard's declaration that "prison works". He writes:

Michael Howard took over from Kenneth Clarke as home secretary in mid-1993 and set about a different and significantly tougher policy. It wasn't all to my liking, but he deserves credit for turning the tide.

And there's more. In a remarkable act of self-punishment, he writes:

Mr Cameron's broad approach was right before the election. Indeed, so was his consistent criticism in his years in opposition that Labour was not being tough enough.

Straw, far from Labour's most authoritarian home secretary, fails to explain why his views have changed so noticeably since 2008, when he argued:

There are effective alternatives in terms of non-custodial penalties which actually have a better record in terms of preventing reoffending than short prison sentences. The probation service has become more effective.

Could it be that the opportunity to attack the "soft" Lib Dems for allegedly dragging the Tories to the left was too good to turn down? It could be.

The truth, as Straw once knew, is that for far too many detainees, prison does not work. It is the excessive use of short sentences that has led to Britain's appalling recidivism rate. At the moment, of the 60,000 prisoners given short sentences, 60 per cent reoffend.

Nor should this come as a surprise. As Clarke will say in his speech today: "Many a man has gone into prison without a drug problem and come out drug-dependent. And petty prisoners can meet up with some new hardened criminal friends."

Clarke, a brave and honest politician, can now expect to face the combined forces of the Tory right, the Daily Mail and the Labour Party. They will cry with one voice that prison works: an offender can't commit a crime if he is behind bars. But this quick-fix, short-term approach stores up more problems than it solves.

If Clarke has the patience and the political will to reform our prison system, we will all have at least one thing to thank the coalition for.

UPDATE: For an alternative take, Peter Hoskin's post on Coffee House is worth a read.

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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