1 October 2010

Miliband pulls Scottish Labour's alligators' teeth....

Today, the retiring Governor of HMP Barlinnie, Bill McKinlay told members of the press that he believes we jail far too many people in Scotland. Its one of the hardly-whispered statistics of post-devolution Scottish politics, but since 1999-2000 our daily prison population has increased by an astonishing 31%. The chart to the right shows changes since 1900. While in 1999-00, the average daily population numbered 5,975, in 2008-09, the average number  kept in custody in our penal establishments was 7,835 – or 1,860 more prisoners than just 10 years ago. When was the last time you heard anyone even mention, never mind take responsibility for, this penal devolution dividend? 

Not satisfied with a mere 31% increase in our prison population in ten years, Scottish Labour and Tory politicians ardently believe we live in a soft-touch Scotland in general, subject to the limp caresses of Scottish Nationalists in particular.  Indeed, one of the few things about the Holyrood 2011 election that seemed certain was that Labour intended to tack to the  illiberal right on criminal justice, hot with uncosted promises of ratcheting up the prison population still further and heavy on trash machismo rhetoric from buttery Justice spokespersons. Iain Gray's performance at First Minister's Questions on the 1st of July of this year seemed to set the tone and Labour's stated intention to slate the Nationalist government as a bunch of crim-loving pansies:

Look, we should not be surprised that the Government ends this year by releasing 7,000 criminals from our jails. It started this year by releasing the Lockerbie bomber from jail. In between, the First Minister was found out providing testimony for a drug dealer. His deputy was caught trying to keep a serial fraudster out of jail. Why is it that Alex Salmond is always to be found on the side of the criminals and never on the side of the victims?

On 30th June 2010, old Tory hand Kenneth Clarke, the new coalition's Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, gave a speech at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, touching on the efficacy of short term prison sentences:

It is virtually impossible to do anything productive with offenders on short sentences. And in the short time they are in prison many end up losing their jobs, their homes and their families. That is why this Government, as I will explain later, has committed to a full review of sentencing policy to ensure that it is effective in what it is supposed to be doing – deterring crime, protecting the public, punishing offenders and, the part where we’ve been failing most, cutting reoffending. We want a far more constructive approach ...

... In my opinion the failure of the past has been to use tough rhetoric and to avoid taking tough decisions that might prove unpopular in the short term. I am determined to make the right decisions. And I hope to deliver results that will deserve your support.

This week, in his keynote speech, new Labour leader Ed Miliband frankly conceded that:

“Wisdom is not the preserve of any one party. Frankly, the political establishment too often conducts debate in a way that insults the intelligence of the public. When I disagree with the government, as on the deficit, I will say so loud and clear and I will take the argument to them. But 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.”

Inevitably - and quite rightly - in the political tailor's shops that are the Scottish press, a kilt was  hastily manufactured and discreetly slipped across the story - “Ed Miliband contradicts Iain Gray on Sentencing. Despite minor grumbles suggesting the contrary, we should remember that the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland is now Ed Miliband, while Iain Gray's status is limited to the Leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament. Amusingly implausibly, the Telegraph article suggests that Richard Baker, the Swine Pursuivant, has already denied that Scottish Labour's regularly expressed views are at any variance with those of their new leader and that their soft on crime sayings are obviously animated by totally distinct concerns from those Miliband disavowed. Claims Baker, his repeated invocation of the phrase "soft on crime" and its cognates was actually inspired by the alleged underfunding of community punishments, not reducing the number of short sentences per se. A heroic attempt at flexibility on his part, but hardly plausible. 

As Stuart Winton has insistently and consistently reminded us, the devolution rationale can be intensely problematic for unitary parties who nevertheless attempt to adopt incompatible approaches. So it proves here. Much of the time, these inconsistencies might be ignored, masked by public and press indifference to an eccentric or specialist concern. Not so with what looked like one of the central planks of Labour's 2011 Holyrood campaign. The logic doesn't look promising -

In London, Ken Clarke is not soft on crime when he suggests curtailing short prison sentences. In Edinburgh, Kenny MacAskill and Alex Salmond are soft on crime when they curtail short prison sentences.

So, how might the Shades of Gray resolve this cognitive dissonance with any sort of consistency? Roughly, there seem to be two alternatives. Either they could admit and attempt to justify following a different set of principles, and hence adopt a different policy from their UK leader on short sentences. In the alternative, he could claim that the Scottish situation is somehow distinct from England & Wales and as a result, the same principles lead to diametrically opposed results. Sounding plausible yet? For instance, Gray could argue that short term prisons sentences work in Scotland, but not in England and Wales, but where is the evidence for that? Scottish Labour could try to claim that locking up a higher percentage of your population is a distinctive Scottish value, the sort that Holyrood was created to realise. Or in a combination of is and ought - that knife-crime and "knife-culture" is more entrenched north of the Tweed, entailing different expedients to minimise and eliminate the phenomenon. Even then, Miliband has frankly admitted that he does not regard curtailing short sentences as being soft on crime. Indeed he seems willing to support efforts made by the Coalition in Westminster to that end. Such an admission already paints big clown's faces on Iain Gray and Richard Baker - who can hardly now play penal hard-men and doomsayers as trumpetingly as they had clearly plotted. They now have to contend with this unreachable, incurable itch in Scottish Labour's law and order rump. Without regard or sympathy for the campaigns of his Scottish compatriots, Miliband has pulled out their alligator's teeth.


  1. Do you honestly think that the two miscreants major in SLAB to understand that or to think themselves out of the poke?

    I hae ma douts

  2. If anyone is interested I am scribbling a techo wine column over at the Newsnet Scotland website.

    Sorry for the plug but I feel so lonely.

  3. Labour think their soft on crime line is a winner with their core voters. And it probably is, given that Labour's core voters tend to live in areas of deprivation with higher levels of unemployment, drink and drug abuse, mental illness, family breakdown etc - all the hallmarks of poverty which leads to higher levels of crime.

    What is interesting is that they cannot hope to win the election simply by shoring up their core voters with this sort of stuff. Frankly they don't really need to do that. The SNP is a long way from breaking through in places like Glasgow North East where Labour's SNP soft on crime line worked so well.

    It makes you wonder what Labour are playing at. They must know they are alienating the progressive Labour vote with the hang em flog em approach. It doesn't make much sense unless they don't really want to win the election.

  4. Bugger,

    They may well try to brazen-neck it out and pretend Miliband said nowt on the subject. That said, the particularly good bit about this story is that it will resonate with a London-media, who are mostly interested in the Westminster implications of any Scottish political story. Basically, they may not get away with it.

  5. P.S. I never mind folk adding a wee plug for their endeavours in the comments, Bugger (unless they're obviously spammy). I'd actually missed your NewsnetScotland section myself, not anticipating we might find distorting Unionist media narratives in our wine reviews! Still, I'm always on the look out for a nice bottle or two...

    Folk interested in Sommelier Bugger's analysis can read the "Know your wine" blog here.

  6. Precisely, Indy.

    They must exist, somewhere, those folk. They may even exist in the parliament, but out of loyalty they bow their heads, keep their mouths shut and press their voting buttons on cue. Its one of the reasons I think its a pity we don't seem to have a single, vocal, committed Scottish Labour blogger to attempt to justify the tack taken by Gray & Baker - or to express qualms about it. In the blogosphere at least, there is no "texture" of Scottish Labour opinion represented. Too much goes unsaid, or said in private.

  7. P.S. If anyone wants a clearer view of the graph I inserted above, the figure and figures quoted are culled from a Scottish Government Statistical bulletin Prison Statistics Scotland 2008 - 09 which can be read in full here.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Less a Somellier more a Common Sewer

  10. Sommelier with two Ms sticky key and unsticky l

  11. I think you underestimate the power of the mainstream media in Scotland. Gray and the rest will probably niggle away at the SNP soft on crime theme and the compliant media will stay mum about the different approach of Westminster politicians.

    The Record, the Sun, BBC Scotland, The Evening Times and The Scotsman will see Labour safely through the potential difficulties arising from any inconsistencies in the reality of the situation.

  12. Thumbs aloft for the 'Swine Pursuivant' appellation.

  13. You may be right there, Colonel Klink. That said, even on your more cynical (or more realistic, delete by preference) interpretation, at least Miliband's intervention means that the knowing silence you allude to has to be confected and the dishonesty perpetuated. This at least has the potential to be awkward for them. I'd prefer to be gunning against a consciously dishonest silence that is desperately trying to ignore the mewings of the cat that slipped the bag than one whose doubts are purely private.

  14. Glad it meets with approval, Mark!

    I can't entirely recall the etymology of the title, though it must have come in a week that united the Lord Lyon King of Arms and pigs in some unlikely fashion.

    As someone interested in his portfolio - my contempt for the way the man conducts himself seems increasingly boundless. Most politicians are patchy characters, curate's eggs. Baker's public persona, by contrast, is just unrelentingly awful, ungenerous, fat-headed...

    I could go on...

  15. "Swine Pursuivant" - the pig's trotters.