Yesterday’s launch of Labour’s justice strategy under Sadiq Khan extends the new leadership’s challenge of new Labour orthodoxies. “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” will no longer be the mantra now that Ed Miliband’s ‘new generation’ have taken power.
Instead, Khan suggests, the party must acknowledge that its “scorecard in office would have said: ‘could have done better’” over re-offending rates and the size of the prison population. He speaks convincingly about the need to “draw upon facts, rather than emotional rhetoric, to steer the debate”, because “it’s easy to slip into polarised… positions when discussing our justice system.”
He continues: “The work that we did to prevent youth offending, and to tackle the roots of criminality and combat social deprivation, was drowned out by debates on prisons and being tough on criminals.”
But while Khan is right to ask questions about how the coalition has managed to successfully position itself as more progressive than the Blair and Brown administrations, he fails to acknowledge the role that new Labour’s tough rhetoric helped in the fight against crime. With Liberal Democrats in government, and the famously liberal Ken Clarke at the head of coalition justice policy, there is the problem that fear of a lurch to the left on justice policy will leave the door wide open for a resurgent right-wing.
Khan acknowledges this worry. But so far his answer sounds more optimistic than pragmatic: “Hopefully the public will buy into evidence-based policy, rather than listening to the tabloids,” he says.
The shadow justice secretary is right to point out that much of the danger inherent in the government’s current strategy is that their dramatic reduction in spending will scupper any reforms—in Fabian panellist Matthew Ryder QC’s words, “discrediting the progressive approach.”
But if, as Khan hypothesises, the coalition’s “apparently progressive policies don’t work,” it will not only “open the door for those in the Tory party who have a much more reactionary view.” There are a number of far more undesirable homes for any such disaffection.
Last week’s Searchlight Educational Trust report on identity politics highlights the growing success of groups such as the English Defence League, who speak to “those who feel economically, socially, and culturally dispossessed and disorientated by negative change.”
It is no surprise that in a time of national hardship, those in most need of the services that government provides will instinctively be drawn to tough, clear messages on the solutions to social issues such as unemployment and immigration—but also crime, drug abuse and social exclusion.
Labour must recognise this. What it needs now is a media strategy to match the leadership’s principled commitment to policy renewal. Stakeholders, think tanks and the left-wing media are evidently thrilled by Labour’s new approach to policy making. But unless the party can talk round an economically and socially insecure public, in language that it understands, it will never stand a chance of turning its words into action.