The Politics of Prison and Crime

The tuition fees furore has successfully crowded out widespread media coverage of another potential coalition fault line – law and order.

Earlier this week Justice Secretary Ken Clarke announced his ambition to cut prison numbers through flexible sentencing and promoting rehabilitation programmes. He also aspires to scrap minimum sentences for murder and reverse a previous policy position to impose mandatory jail terms for knife crime.

I suspect that in any other week it would not only have been The Sun that gave such proposals critical front page scrutiny.

Unsurprisingly the Party leadership have ordered a speedy rethink of this watering-down in criminal justice policy. The truth is that Ken Clarke is out of step not only with the majority of Tory activists, but the vast majority of the general public on this.

One of the most notable developments in public opinion during my nine years as a constituency MP here in Central London is the sea change in attitude towards the police from middle class Tory-voting residents. Notwithstanding the broad sympathy for the police in the aftermath of the mob violence in central London yesterday, I am sorry to observe that the Met can no longer rely on instinctive support from the law abiding. Often their own limited experience of contact with the Met has been of a dismissive or unhelpful approach especially in handling perceived minor incidents like burglary or car crime. In truth, a worryingly high proportion of my peaceful electors no longer automatically trust the police. They are similarly sceptical about crime statistics or talk of the benefits of non-custodial sentences.

When they hear reassurances from politicians or senior police officers (invariably regarded nowadays as slick public relations specialists) about falling rates of ‘serious crime’ or ambitious plans for rehabilitation they shake their heads in disbelief. They simply want to be protected from violent criminals.

If the epidemic of knife crime amongst young people is to be countered we need to send an uncompromising signal from police and politicians alike. An end to mandatory life sentences for murder would send out a confused mixed-message to a fearful public, especially those living in our cities. Above all we need to recognise that in time, once the public finances are in better shape, we shall undoubtedly need to build more prisons.