Ken Clarke talks up his rehabilitation revolution

The riots were the result of a "broken penal system," argues the Justice Secretary.

Ken Clarke enters the riots debate with one dramatic, indisputable statistic. The Justice Secretary writes in today's Guardian: "Close to three-quarters of those aged 18 or over charged with riot offences already had a prior conviction. That is the legacy of a broken penal system - one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful.

The riots, he suggests, amount to a renewed case for his rehabilitation revolution. Yet for fear of appearing excessively liberal, Clarke throws plenty of red meat to the right as well. He highlights the government's plan to introduce tougher community penalties, refuses to condemn the disproportionate sentences handed down by the courts ("the judges have probably been getting it about right"), and baldly refers to the rioters as a "feral underclass". How such language helps tackle what Clarke rightly calls our "appalling social deficit" remains unclear.

But for all this, Clarke's message is strikingly different from David Cameron's blunt call for "zero tolerance". The two remain irreconcilable. Officially, the coalition still plans to cut more than 2,500 prison places but Cameron has vowed that the government will provide "the prison places necessary that the courts decree." In the meantime, as the Prison Reform Trust has warned, parts of the system are "becoming human warehouses, doing little more than banging people up in overcrowded conditions, with regimes that are hard pressed to offer any employment or education." These are not, to put it mildly, not ideal conditions for Clarke's justice revolution. But it could take a (prison) riot before Cameron changes course.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.