Thanks Jack: Tory right finds a friend in Labour

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is calling for cuts in Britain’s prison population, following the agenda set by the Lib Dems and previously opposed by both the Conservatives and Labour.

Those Labour activists still clinging desperately onto the idea that the Lib Dems are mere cheerleaders in the coalition are going to have to twist themselves into yet more contortions – or simply  ignore the facts – as they continue to push their line.

As Jack Straw writes in The Mail:

[David Cameron] has allowed his government’s penal policy to be dictated not by his own common sense but by Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke in alliance with 57 Liberal Democrat MPs.

Whilst the Government might not be taking too much notice of the right wing of the Tory party, those traditional Conservatives have found a champion in Mr Straw, who’s had a change of heart in the last couple of years. Back in 2008 he said:

There are effective alternatives in terms of non-custodial penalties which actually have a better record in terms of preventing reoffending than short prison sentences. The probation service has become more effective,

But writing in The Mail today, he’s changed his tune. Jack’s now a big fan of short prison sentences and approvingly quotes David Cameron as saying

when someone smashes up the bus stop, when someone repeatedly breaks the law, when someone is found fighting on a Friday or Saturday night, as a magistrate, you’ve got to have that power for a short prison sentence when you’ve tried the other remedies.’

So far, so odd. A senior Labour figure freely admits the Coalition government is following the Lib Dem agenda on law and order, and sides with the Tory right, performing a smart u-turn on short prison sentences in the process.

Much of Straw’s article in the Mail is the same old nonsense we’ve seen from Labour over the last couple of decades: trying to kid people that the Lib Dems approach ignores the victims and is just about cutting money.   It’s a nice comfort blanket for the opposition, just not very closely related to reality.

His main thesis is a paean for Michael Howard – probably the most right wing Conservative Home Secretary in the 1979-97 period.

[Michael Howard] deserves credit for turning the tide

Here’s the problem with that argument. Jack Straw is quite right to point out that crime rose from 1979 to 1995 and has fallen since under most measures. He might also have pointed out that it fell fastest under the Conservatives and the sharp drop became more of a gentle trickle after Labour came to power, but never mind – these are the facts.

The big question – the one academics around the world have been debating without firm conclusion ever since – is why crime has fallen. You see, crime didn’t just fall in this country. Similar falls have been seen across most of the western world, starting at roughly the same time, the early to mid ’90s.

Luckily, Jack knows how to find the answer – not for him old-fashioned academic research and an evidence-based approach.

The exact relationship between more criminals going to jail and fewer crimes being committed is complicated. But ask any police officer, ask anyone in the street.

That’s right, Jack. That’s just how we answer these difficult questions.

Here’s why Mr Straw is wrong. He argues that the fall in crime from 1995 is directly linked to the tough “prison works” approach taken by Michael Howard who became Home Secretary in 1993.

But, as I mentioned earlier, crime didn’t just fall in England and Wales. It fell across a wide range of countries. Most of those have a more liberal prison regime, haven’t seen their prison populations rise hugely and have still seen similar falls to ours. Explain that one, Jack.

Prison has an important part to play in our justice system. It’s the right place for serious, violent and some repeat offenders. Clogging up the prison system with offenders who could better be dealt with elsewhere does nothing to help the victims of crime and makes us no safer.

Finally, after decades, we see signs of having a Government willing to step away from the tabloid-pleasing we’re-tougher-than-you criminal justice arms race and take an evidence-based approach to punishing and reforming criminals, helping victims and cutting crime.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Anthony Aloysius St 30th Jun '10 - 9:09am

    I suppose if there had to be one member of the Labour party attacking the Tories for going along with Lib Dem policy, it would be Jack Straw, wouldn’t it?

  • @Anthony – Don’t forget Phil Woolas:

    That would be the same Phil Woolas who barely held on to his seat by spreading anti-Muslim sentiment and accusing his Lib Dem competitor of being linked with Muslim extremists:

  • Fancy! Supporting the Tories! Good to see the Lib Dems would never do that.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 30th Jun '10 - 10:36am

    Yes, admittedly, it might alternatively have been Phil Woolas.

  • Paul McKeown 30th Jun '10 - 10:42am

    Jack “Pinochet” Straw was terrible, but David “machine gun” Blunkett was truly diabolical. After that there was Charles Clarke, who seemed to wage a one man campaign against Magna Carta, then we had John Reid who spent his time in the Home Office meeting a political target of at least one Daily Mail pandering soundbite per day. At least Jacqui Smith had the good grace just to be totally useless, a blessed relief.

    Awful, every one of them, but the worst had to be Blunkett, truly an inspirational figure for hysterical right-wing tabloid writers.

  • Paul McKeown 30th Jun '10 - 10:46am

    I welcome the Ken Clarke/Theresa May axis as one of common sense and fairness, rooted in decent British values, after two decades of abysmal government in justice and home affairs.

  • On the whole I kind of agree with this, It’s good that we are looking for other solutions other than the ‘throw away the key’ option
    However one thing that does worry me is that the system is being handed over to private companies and are payed according to how many people are ‘rehabilitated’. do we really want a Criminal Justice System based on piece work? just how open to abuse will that be I wonder?

  • “crime didn’t just fall in England and Wales. It fell across a wide range of countries. Most of those have a more liberal prison regime, haven’t seen their prison populations rise hugely and have still seen similar falls to ours. Explain that one, Jack.”
    I can attempt to explain that (or at least I have a theory) We all know crime and poverty go hand in hand, in the past few years life for many of us has been pretty good and the standard of living has, in general, gone up and that equals less crime, unfortunately life is going to get a lot harder real soon for a lot of people so I’m fully expecting the crime figures to go up. Not a good time to privatise the prison service nor reduce police numbers methinks.
    Private Security firms patrolling the streets anyone?

  • “Whilst the Government might not be taking too much notice of the right wing of the Tory party”

    That’s not what they seem to think:

  • Most evidence shows that there is little to know difference between private and public prisons in terms of effectiveness. But the last government’s justice policy was HORRIFIC. Ask anyone with any knowledge of the subject- not perhaps the ones who Jack Straw has in mind- but Prof Alison Liebling from Cambridge’s criminology department, or Lord Ramsbotham, or Anne Owers and on and on and on. We don’t have the courses, we don’t have the probation to resettle offenders in different peer groups, we don’t have the preventative infrastructure. Jack Straw wanted to save money by building more and more pile-em-high-sell-em-cheap sardine can super prisons. Eurgh. I just wish that Jack Straw would have the balls to write those articles for the Guardian, rather than the Mail.

  • George Kendall 30th Jun '10 - 7:12pm

    The new Coalition policy on prisons is remarkable and extremely welcome. I wonder how many Labour members secretly admire it, but I’m not holding my breath for them to come on this site and tell us that they do.

    For thirty years, criminal justice policy has been driven by the tabloid press. I won’t share my pleasure on Conservative blogs, that might be a little undiplomatic, but that this change should come from a Conservative minister is amazing.

    For all the pain many of us feel about measures to sort out the deficit, this is extremely welcome news.

  • Whilst this is a sensible move, I can’t help thinking that it is driven mainly by economics – prisons and prison places are very expensive to maintain.

    More alarming to me are the reports that police numbers are going to be cut as a result of the spending reductions. Whatever type of sentencing or penal policy is in place, you have to catch the criminals in the first place before you can sentence them! It also makes a mockery of the claim that “frontline” services will be protected – what could be more frontline than the police force?

  • Paul McKeown 1st Jul '10 - 5:11pm


    What is true is the Labour party continue to be appalling on this issue, even though now is a good time to ditch “New Labour”, they are still clinging onto it.

    Very true, they seem to be lurching ever further towards authoritarianism, going by the comments on various Labour leaning blogs. It allows the Lib Dems space, though, in the political marketplace to position themselves as a centre-left party with a genuine liberal outlook. I thought that Nick Clegg did a poor job during the television debates, to be honest, in defending Liberal Democratic policies such as the “amnesty” and not replacing Trident like for like. These policies are not universally popular, but they are not universally unpopular either; I suspect that many of the liberal positions taken by the current government will prove sufficient popular to allow the Liberal Democrats to make a strong challenge to Labour at the next general election and that the LDs should not be afraid to take further liberal positions on social issues either.

  • As someone who has often criticised this coalition, I must say I heartily welcome Ken Clarke’s comments. I seriously hope that the government will follow through on this with concrete policies and legislation.

  • David Allen 2nd Jul '10 - 4:15pm

    Well done Ken Clarke. It’s nice to see that there’s at least one liberal who hasn’t been cowed into submission by his coalition colleagues…..!

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