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11 March 2011

Wrath at Khan

Attack on the shadow justice minister is being seen as a proxy assault on Ed Miliband.

By Dan Hodges

The shadow justice minister, Sadiq Khan, is facing a backlash from a number of front and backbench colleagues following his speech this week criticising Labour’s posture on law and order while in government. Addressing the Fabians on Monday, Khan queried the party’s approach to penal policy, saying:

Reoffending rates are still too high, as is the prison population. I’m clear that this is one area where our score card in office would have said “Could have done better”. Much better, in fact.

We became hesitant in talking about rehabilitation and the merits of investment in bringing down reoffending rates. It was almost as if we had to give off the impression we were even more tough on crime just to demonstrate we weren’t soft on crime.

Playing tough in order not to look soft made it harder to focus on what is effective.

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The speech received an apparent rebuke from the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, who told the BBC yesterday:

In the last 13 years crime fell by 43 per cent, reflecting the extra police and the hard work in communities across the country to prevent and crack down on crime. That is progress communities should be proud of, and a testament to the strong record on law and order that Labour has after those 13 years.

Concern about Khan’s comments is not confined to the home affairs team. One shadow cabinet insider was highly critical of what they described as “the serious lack of discipline” revealed by the speech. “It was cleared past Ed’s office, but not Yvette’s. Technically that’s defensible, but it shows a lack of professionalism and courtesy. It’s a major part of Yvette’s patch, and she should have had sight of it.”

There is also broader concern about the inconsistent messaging coming from Labour on the law-and-order issue. “A couple of weeks ago we had Ed in the Sun piling into Cameron for being weak on crime,” the insider told me. “Now we’ve got Sadiq popping up saying he wants to hand half the prison population the key to their cells. We’re just confusing people.”

The criticism is shared by a number of senior backbenchers. “It’s not terminal, but there’s quite a bit of disquiet,” said one. “I’ve had people from across the party raising it with me.”

Crime is seen as a touchstone issue with the party grass roots, and there was already some nervousness about the liberal mood music emanating from the leader’s office on prisons policy. “If anyone thinks I’m following Ed Miliband or Ken Clarke’s line on this stuff they can think again,” said one shadow frontbencher, in response to the former’s support for the latter in his Manchester conference speech.

Allies of Khan claim that, if read in its entirety, the speech represents a more balanced critique of prisons policy than was reported. Others also believe there are personality issues at play: “Sadiq is seen as quite arrogant by a few of his colleagues. One or two were already gunning for him, and this didn’t help.”

His political proximity to the leader is also seen as a factor, with some framing the attack on the shadow justice minister as a proxy attack on Ed Miliband himself. “Everyone knows what’s going on. There are some people who haven’t got the guts to be critical of Ed so they’re having a go at Sadiq instead,” said an insider.

Whatever the motivation, Khan’s speech has again exposed one of the key underlying tensions at the heart of Miliband’s agenda. On the one hand is his need to continue to score tactical successes against the coalition, with policing and crime perceived as a fertile line of attack. But this is balanced by his instinctive small “l” liberalism and strategic desire to move beyond the New Labour rhetoric and positioning of which the “tough on crime” narrative was such an important part.

“That’s his fundamental problem,” said one MP: “he’s trying to drive on both sides of the road at the same time. The longer it goes on like this, the bumpier it’s going to get, and sooner or later he’s going to find himself face to face with a bloody big political truck.”

Tough on a liberal prisons policy, tough on the causes of a liberal prisons policy. It just doesn’t have the same ring.