Ken Clarke plays to the Tory right -- but they're not convinced yet

Justice Secretary stresses "toughness" as he announces that all prisoners will work a 40 hour week.

Ken Clarke sought to pacify his critics within the Conservative Party with a bullish speech to the conference, couched in harsh rhetoric about crime.

The Justice Secretary drew ire from the right of the party in the summer, when he suggested increased use of community sentences to reduce the number of people being sent to jail on short sentences.

"Don't worry," he told a packed conference hall today. "I have not become some woolly-minded idealist since I was last a reforming minister. I am under no illusions about the British criminal class."

The one-time chancellor stressed his right-wing credentials, proudly declaring that "I am a deficit hawk", and setting up this and his prison reforms -- criticised for being too liberal -- as part of the same reformist project.

While he lambasted Labour for talking tough but failing to reduce the number of criminals that reoffend, Clarke indulged in some tough talk of his own. For serious criminals, "prison is the only punishment that the public expects and accepts". He stressed the rights and feelings of the victims of reoffenders, rather than the so-called "criminal class" condemned to poverty and cycles of deprivation.

The key word here was "toughness". This was an obvious attempt to circumvent the charge that is on the wrong side of the law and order debate for a Conservative: community sentences must be "tougher", revalued in the model of France or Germany. Prisons, too, must be "tougher places of hard work." It's the same idea that we heard in June -- indeed, the campaign against short sentences is supported by Ed Miliband -- but with a shift in language, it's dressed up as something more palatable to the Tory grassroots.

Yet the crowd was unsure. The central policy announcement was that prisoners should be made to work a 40 hour week in prison to tackle idleness and prepare them for the world outside. This should play well to the Tory right, but there was only tentative applause, or even silence, when Clarke strayed too far from the "toughness" message.

His suggestion that prisoners be paid the national minimum wage for this work in prison is unlikely to garner much support from those within the party who already see his proposals as too lenient, though he claimed that this money would go towards restitution for victims.

The Justice Secretary went some way towards getting his party on side today, but still has some convincing to do.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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How the Lib Dems learned to love all-women shortlists

Yes, the sitting Lib Dem MPs are mostly white, middle-aged middle class men. But the party's not taking any chances. 

I can’t tell you who’ll be the Lib Dem candidate in Southport on 8 June, but I do know one thing about them. As they’re replacing a sitting Lib Dem (John Pugh is retiring) - they’ll be female.

The same is true in many of our top 20 target seats, including places like Lewes (Kelly-Marie Blundell), Yeovil (Daisy Benson), Thornbury and Yate (Clare Young), and Sutton and Cheam (Amna Ahmad). There was air punching in Lib Dem offices all over the country on Tuesday when it was announced Jo Swinson was standing again in East Dunbartonshire.

And while every current Lib Dem constituency MP will get showered with love and attention in the campaign, one will get rather more attention than most - it’s no coincidence that Tim Farron’s first stop of the campaign was in Richmond Park, standing side by side with Sarah Olney.

How so?

Because the party membership took a long look at itself after the 2015 election - and a rather longer look at the eight white, middle-aged middle class men (sorry chaps) who now formed the Parliamentary party and said - "we’ve really got to sort this out".

And so after decades of prevarication, we put a policy in place to deliberately increase the diversity of candidates.

Quietly, over the last two years, the Liberal Democrats have been putting candidates into place in key target constituencies . There were more than 300 in total before this week’s general election call, and many of them have been there for a year or more. And they’ve been selected under new procedures adopted at Lib Dem Spring Conference in 2016, designed to deliberately promote the diversity of candidates in winnable seats

This includes mandating all-women shortlists when selecting candidates who are replacing sitting MPs, similar rules in our strongest electoral regions. In our top 10 per cent of constituencies, there is a requirement that at least two candidates are shortlisted from underrepresented groups on every list. We became the first party to reserve spaces on the shortlists of winnable seats for underrepresented candidates including women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled candidates

It’s not going to be perfect - the hugely welcome return of Lib Dem grandees like Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Julian Huppert to their old stomping grounds will strengthen the party but not our gender imbalance. But excluding those former MPs coming back to the fray, every top 20 target constituency bar one has to date selected a female candidate.

Equality (together with liberty and community) is one of the three key values framed in the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution. It’s a relief that after this election, the Liberal Democratic party in the Commons will reflect that aspiration rather better than it has done in the past.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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