The return of Darling as shadow chancellor would be a gift to the Tories

The appointment of the man who was Chancellor at the time of the crash would make it even easier for the Tories to warn "don't give the keys back".

Ed Balls's much-panned response to George Osborne's Autumn Statement has restarted the speculation about whether he will be replaced as shadow chancellor before the general election. Among commentators, Alistair Darling is again being touted as the ideal replacement. He's done the job before and has indicated that he'd be open to a frontbench role once he's finished saving the Union in September 2014. 

The Telegraph's Peter Oborne makes the standard case for Darling this morning: "He would bring unrivalled goodwill as the man credited with saving the British financial system in 2010 and then saving the union in 2014. The arrival of Alastair Darling just nine months before the general election would do wonders for Labour’s chances...because no British politician is held in as much respect as Mr Darling is today." 

But while the replacement of Balls with Darling would win plaudits from the commentariat (who revere him for his battles with Brown), it is less certain that it would improve Labour's election prospects. Borrowing a line from Barack Obama, the Tories' message at the next election will be "Britain is on the right track. Don't give the keys to the guys who crashed the car in the first place", one that could persuade nervous voters to stick with the status quo.

In this regard, the appointment of the man who was Chancellor at the time of the financial crisis would be a political gift to the Tories. Osborne and Cameron make much of Balls's Treasury past, but how many outside of Westminster know that he was City minister from 2006-07, or that he previously served as Brown's special adviser? Voters are more likely to remember him for his time as Schools Secretary than his time as Brown's brain. 

Darling's supporters will point out that he was the man who stopped the banks from going under, not the man responsible for the system of light-touch regulation that created the crisis. Others will note that he urged Brown to be more open about the cuts that Labour would have to make in an attempt to prevent the Tories from claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility for themselves. (Although it's worth recalling that it was also Darling who vetoed Balls's smart call for Labour to rule out a post-election VAT rise.)

But all of this detail will be lost on voters. To them, Darling is the man with "the weird eyebrows" (yes, as any pollster will tell you, voters are shallow) who was at the helm of the ship when it hit the iceberg. Are they really going to trust him with the economy again? Labour would undoubtedly benefit from the return of a politician as experienced and as shrewd as Darling but the shadow chancellorship is not the job for him. 

I suspect that Ed Miliband, who has notably avoided returning "greybeards" to the frontbench in favour of promoting the "new generation", recognises as much. Balls, who remains the best qualified figure for the job, is still more likely than not to be in his post come May 2015. 

Ed Miliband with Alistair Darling at the Labour conference in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.