Jim Murphy: security is at the heart of the new centre ground

The Shadow Defence Secretary has a theory about the changing complexion of British politics

I have interviewed shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy for this week's magazine. He talks about a range of subjects: Labour's difficulty talking about class; the protest camp at St Paul's Cathedral; the epic problems facing the party in Scotland; the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

As ever there wasn't room to print everything he said and there was one extended passage that I thought deserved more attention than the constraints of the page allowed. We talked about the legacy of Thatcherism and the way she effectively changed the parameters of political debate in Britain. Did she identify a shift in the "centre ground" of politics or did she redefine it by force of will? There is a lot of discussion at the top of the Labour party at the moment about the prospect of a change in the political landscape equivalent to the one that happened between the late Seventies and mid-Eighties. The theory goes that the financial crisis that started in 2007-8 and continues today will force a social upheaval and a dramatic reappraisal of government's role in the economy. The orthodoxy of the Thatcher and Blair years, in this view, is obsolete. Ed Miliband's contention is that the Tories, wedded as they are to that Thatcherite orthodoxy, are intellectually unable to grasp the scale of this change and under-equipped to respond to it. Labour, he thinks, has the opportunity to harness the national mood.

I discussed this with Jim Murphy. He had an interesting take on the "new centre" which he characterised as follows:

This new centre is populated by ideas and policies from both the centre-left and the centre-right. People wanting a government to intervene in a way that would be more consistent with an ethos of the centre left on industrial policy, on bank bonuses, on those sorts of things - an instinct that would have its heritage in the centre left of politics. But then things like crime, immigration, welfare which instinctively some people - not me, the ill-informed orthodoxy - would have that on the centre-right.

Security is the biggest part of this new centre - financial security, job security, home security determination to have answers from centre left - and then there's personal security - community security, immigration, welfare, cohesion. Some people say traditionally that sense of security comes from the centre-right.

I'm not sure that Miliband would phrase it in that way, but there is a lot of overlap. The Labour leader has accepted a lot of language traditionally associated with the centre-right (and, it must be said, New Labour) of "toughness" on crime and the need for a welfare system that makes demands of recipients to take more responsibility for finding work. But he has also reached across to more radical left impulses in his criticism of "predatory" capitalism.

There will always be people in the Labour party - and elsewhere - who see this attempt to find a position that appeals across the political spectrum as cynical "triangulation" and craven capitulation to fear that the country's instincts are ultimately conservative. I'm not so sure. It is too early to say that Miliband has arrived at a settled new political philosophy for Labour - at least not one that can be easily distilled into a clear message and used as the basis for a campaign. But it is noteworthy that Murphy, who co-managed David Miliband's campaign and is generally held up as the shadow cabinet's leading Blairite, and Ed, who famously promised to "turn the page" on New Labour, are converging on the same political terrain.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

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