Penal policy takes a regressive turn

Politics 1, Coherent policy 0

So the tabloids have been thrown their red meat. Using crime to shore-up one's political capital is -- after a brief lull -- back in fashion. Penal policy is poised once again to take a regressive turn.

Those in this country who believe in a more rational and humane penal policy have, for several years now, quietly put their faith in the Conservatives. In opposition, a succession of shadow justice ministers carefully crafted a sensible alternative to the policies pursued for over a decade by New Labour -- policies that had sent the prison population rocketing to record levels, while doing little to build public trust in the justice system. The recession meant that the money for expanding the penal estate had run out. The Conservatives, it was pointed out, have a proud record of penal reform, as well as being best placed politically tackle spiralling prison numbers. Think Nixon in China.-

This cautious optimism was reinforced following the election. A new rational approach to penal policy appeared one of the issues that bound Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers together. Ken Clarke took up the helm at the Ministry of Justice and seemed just what was needed -- an experienced street-fighter, who wasn't climbing the pole to higher office, who believed in penal reform and was prepared to defend it. He duly launched his 'rehabilitation revolution' -- a coherent plan to stabilise the prison population (hardly the most radical of policy goals) and cut re-offending rates. The new Labour leader Ed Miliband indicated that he would stop using penal policy as a political football.

This week, Clarke's ambitions have suffered a major blow -- as has the hope of a more rational penal policy. Cameron will try hard to present this as the act of a 'listening' government. His advisors will tick this off as a political triumph. But let us be in no doubt -- in policy terms this is bad news. It is true that Clarke got himself into an embarrassing mess in his handling of remission for rapists who enter early guilty pleas -- and a shame that Miliband could not resist grabbing a short-term political prize. It is not even obvious that greater remission for guilty pleas was ever a defensible or principled way to tackle the crisis in our prisons. There is also no doubt that many of the issues here -- notably what to do about the 6000 plus serious offenders currently serving indeterminate prison sentences -- are difficult, perhaps even intractable -- in policy and political terms. But the government's U-turn had little to do with these policy dilemmas. It was politics, stupid.

The government is now left with a far less credible and coherent plan for cutting prison numbers and reducing re-offending. Nor is it easy to see how it can fill the £130 million hole now created in the Ministry of Justice's budget. We are told that the Ministry of Justice will look for (still more) 'efficiency savings', and that probation budgets may now be under further threat. Is this any way to advance a 'rehabilitation revolution'? David Cameron's decision to wrap the welcome review of indeterminate sentences in a crowd-pleasing promise to get 'tougher' with serious offenders will drive the prison population up. This too will divert more resources from non-custodial measures to reduce crime.

There remain aspects of the government's plans that may make a small dent in what remain appallingly high rates of post-prison re-offending. But they are being launched in what is once again an inhospitable climate, in the face of wider political choices that make it harder still for them to succeed. One wishes the beleaguered Mr. Clarke well. He needs to keep reminding his colleagues that bloated prisons vacuum up scarce resources that can be put to much better elsewhere. Until that point is grasped, measures such as justice reinvestment --- which tackle crime by diverting resources from short-term prison sentences to prevention and rehabilitation programmes in local communities -- will remain stuck at the margins of the penal policy agenda. A report published today by IPPR shows this this to be a more principled and workable way of dealing with the prison logjam.

But the government is not alone in now having serious questions to ask. It is surely a sign of Clegg's current political weakness that he agreed to sign off all this. Liberal Democrat supporters will recall that Clegg entered the last election promising to end the penological folly of short sentences and will rightly be asking what Clegg is up to. What of the Liberal Democrats claim to be moderating the worst excesses of Conservative government? As for Ed Miliband, one wonders how he is feeling today. If he is pleased, he certainly shouldn't be, as his own rapid u-turn was instrumental in bringing Clarke's proposals down and re-heating the penal climate. Having helped create this mess, perhaps Miliband and his justice team can now begin the difficult task of building something better from the ruins.

Ian Loader is Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford. He is co-author of Re-Designing Justice. Reducing crime through justice reinvestment (IPPR, 2011).

 

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.