The failings in Labour’s political strategy now have a face and a name: it’s Kenneth Clarke.
That may seem a touch counterintuitive, but trust me. The Justice Secretary’s pain will not be Labour’s gain.
Clarke has acted like an idiot. I’m still not sure where such an experienced member of the cabinet, indeed a former home secretary, thought he was going with a policy consultation that raised the spectre of sex offenders being released halfway through their sentence.
Whatever his views on its rights and wrongs, surely he’s been in politics long enough to know this was never going to fly. Hugging a hoodie is one thing; hugging a rapist is something else.
His attempt to draw a distinction between “types of rape” only compounded the offence. In politics there is an old saying: “When in a hole, stop interviewing.” Clarke didn’t, and by the end of his tour of the morning TV and radio studios he had, in effect, rebranded the party of law and order the Jack the Ripper fan club.
All of which represented a hand-wrapped, silk-adorned present to Ed Miliband. And Labour’s leader accepted it graciously enough. He put David Cameron on the back foot at PMQs. Labour spinners toured the lobby with steel in their eyes and a spring in their step.
“Flippant and complacent”
But the government will still walk away from the Clarke crash with little more than a few cuts and bruises.
Partly that’s because of old Ken himself. He is a big enough political personality for the mud to stick to him, and him alone. Nor is he one of the Cameron inner circle. This was not a cock-up dreamt up in Downing Street
It also highlighted Miliband’s inexperience. The call for Clarke’s resignation was premature, and although his performance at PMQs was adequate, he was clearly not comfortable pushing a rapidly developing issue that had allowed minimal time for preparation.
But what this incident has most graphically highlighted is the gaping disconnect between Labour tactics and Labour strategy.
“David Cameron’s crime policy is becoming a disaster,” blasted the shadow justice minister, Sadiq Khan. “Ken Clarke has heard first hand today the effects of the Tory-led government’s flippant and complacent attitudes towards sentencing on victims of crime.
“He should not be Justice Secretary . . . David Cameron must put victims and the public first. He should abandon his reckless sentencing policies and sack Ken Clarke.”
All fiery stuff. Except this is the same Sadiq Khan who said in March:
If Ken Clarke’s plans fail, this government will have undone much of the progress in criminal justice over the last 13 years that we now take for granted. If their apparently progressive policies don’t work, it will open the door for those in the Tory party who have a much more reactionary view. The progressives and our agenda will be brushed aside.
There was some pretty nifty spin that went along with that speech as well. “Khan unveils a more liberal prison policy”, enthused the Liberal Conspiracy website – reporting that, “in a break with New Labour’s hardline rhetoric, Khan is to argue that the party should declare a new policy aim of jailing fewer people”. “Labour admits ‘tough’ penal policy failed to stem reoffending”, echoed the Guardian.
Can’t reap what you don’t sow
The strategy was clear. The progressive majority wanted a more liberal approach to prison policy. Under Ed Miliband, they would get it.
And Ken Clarke? Flippant, complacent, reckless Ken Clarke?
When Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high reoffending rates, I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime.
So said Labour’s leader in his victory address. He was as good as his word. Ed Miliband never once attacked Clarke for advocating shorter sentences – right up to the day he called for him to be sacked over them.
Yes, the Tories will bleed a little, and the polls may even reflect that temporarily. Ken Clarke’s days as a front-rank politician are nearly over. But Labour will reap no lasting benefit.
Miliband chose not to seek political advantage by rehashing New Labour’s tough stance on crime. And precisely because of that, he will obtain none.
In the same way that his lack of clarity oover immigration will mean that he gains no political capital when the Cameron immigration cap fails. Or when Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms run into the sand. Or, worst of all, when the dire predictions of economic calamity caused by George Osborne’s deficit reduction plan fail to materialise.
Labour is currently a party without a strategy. And without a strategy, it has nothing.