In this post I am not seeking to mount a defence of the Justice Secretary or enter into a debate about rape or the justice system. What I want to comment on is what the row that has centered around Ken Clarke over the last few days reveals about the direction of the Labour party.
Ed Miliband has at times tried to set out a more realistic and rational approach to law and order for the Labour Party. It was part of his pitch during the Labour leadership contest. Reading up on this this week I have found that he has written, in The Sun of all places;
“Tougher prison sentences aren’t always the answer. I think there are times when people get locked up and come out as harder criminals.
Some non-violent offenders can be better punished with a tough community sentence, working off their debt to communities over months rather than getting off with a few days in jail.”
So could it be that in his heart Ed would want to take the Labour party in a, well, more liberal direction? Early on in his leadership he clearly stated that “I don’t think we should try to out-right the right on crime”.
I imagine he sees this as forming a key part of the overall project for his leadership of taking his party away from the toxic elements of the New Labour legacy and forming a new, although in many ways more traditional, identity for Labour. Essentially implementing the pitch that he stood on for the leadership.
If this is the case then the policy approach that Ken Clarke is taking is one to which logically he would want to give cautious support.
Yet, if that is Ed’s view then it is not the only view within Labour. The “tough on crime” approach of the old New Labour faction is strong and has many advocates. There are many Labour figures who would want to join in with Tony Blair and John Reid in portraying the coalition as “soft on crime”. And are doing so.
In truth, under Ed, Labour’s position has oscillated between these two approaches.
So this is where the reaction to Ken Clarke’s interview becomes instructive. It was inevitable, and on some points justifiable, for the opposition to criticise and put pressure on Clarke. It was clearly a mistake for Ed Miliband to call for Clarke’s resignation. Clarke is still in post and the Labour Leader looks smaller. Yet beyond that the extent and vehemence of the Labour reaction, coupled with how it was widened out to encompass a generalised attack on the coalition’s justice policy, has demonstrated that the party’s default mode of operation is to put itself in a position where it can accuse its opponents of being “soft on crime”. Steve Richards, in an article that makes many similiar points to those I make here, says;
“By calling for his resignation, Miliband opts for the tough-on-crime protective shield, which both Blair and Brown deployed to protect them from any perception they might be soft lefties.”
The fact that this is contradictory to the position that Miliband has himself set out must cause him difficulties. The Labour Leader has written an article in the Independent that attempts to square this circle. Sunny Hundal says that it “Sounds like a sensible and populist position to take”. Myself I thought it was disingenuous and internally contradictory.
The truth is that Miliband is walking a path between his “new Old Labour” direction for his party and the “old New Labour” direction that many senior figures want. He is clearly not strong enough to make a decisive break into a new direction and, on law and order at least, he has been further captured by New Labour.
Comparing Ed Miliband and Ken Clarke after the events of this week both should be feeling deservedly bruised, but it is Ed who has taken the lasting damage.