Every opportunity that Labour spokespeople get these days they attack the Lib Dems. Not usually for any specific Lib Dem policy but for the fact that they were willing to go into coalition with the Conservatives. It often seems like Labour MPs feel like jilted lovers whose rightful and "natural" partners the Lib Dems have inexplicably spurned them for an ill-suited lover and that they will surely soon live to regret this folly.
Wednesday, 30 June 2010
What this ridiculously simplistic narrative fails to take into account is that there are not just areas of commonality with Labour (of course there are some) but there are and always have been areas of commonality with the Conservatives. It is nowhere near clear cut that a partnership with Labour (irrespective of the fact that the parliamentary arithmetic made it unworkable) would have fitted like a glove and a partnership with the Conservatives is utterly doomed.
Yes there are some of the Conservative policies that I and many of my Lib Dem colleagues would rather not have seen enacted (not least in the budget last week) but we have been able to get plenty of our own policies as part of the deal and ameliorate what our party sees as the worst excesses of the Tories.
One of the areas where the previous government were woeful was civil liberties and justice. Labour was authoritarian from the start of its tenure in office and these tendencies got worse and worse as time went on. The prison population shot up from around 50,000 in 1997 to well over 80,000 by the time they left office. Little time was given to the idea that alternative approaches may work. No, they were all dismissed as "soft on crime" as the numbers of people banged up were forced inexorably up.
A good liberal principle is to only imprison people when there is no alternative and to examine the ways in which such a drastic sanction (which is often the direct cause of further crime later) can be avoided. So I am delighted to see that Ken Clarke has started off in his post as Justice Secretary by making it clear that just continually banging people up is not always the right approach and that we need a more constructive way of approaching this issue. He is strongly signalling that there will be more use of community service and attempts to rehabilitate offenders.
Now I am not naive enough to think that this problem can be solved overnight (or indeed ever fully) but the fact that the government has laid down a marker that their approach will not be dictated by the "bang 'em up" brigade is very welcome and dare I say it, liberal. In fact it is probably no exaggeration to say that Clarke's speech today is the most liberal from the cabinet minister responsible for justice in a political generation at least.
And how has Clarke's predecessor Jack Straw responded to this? With a scaremongering article in The Daily Mail (the Mothership of the "bang 'em up" mob) which makes it clear that he is proud of the fact that the prison population is now pushing 85,000. He basically accuses the coalition government of being soft on crime and makes it clear that as far as he is concerned there is no alternative to an ever rising prison population even though it costs an absolute fortune, recidivism rates are through the roof, prisons are massively overcrowded and many times his government was forced to ensure some inmates were released early (which demonstrates that despite all the rhetoric by its own terms their policy was failing).
So we come back to my initial point. I have fairly strong liberal instincts and if I had not been a member of any political party I would have been very pleased with what Ken Clarke had to say today and the clear direction of travel upon which he intends to embark. I would also have been distinctly unimpressed with the behaviour of Straw and his colleagues trying to poo-poo the idea that a more constructive approach is "soft on crime". In other words what this government with its many Tory MPs is planning is very closely aligned with my own politics and almost diametrically opposite to that of the Labour Party.
As it happens I am a member of the Lib Dems but on this issue that is irrelevant. I would support the government on this anyway. And it is a stark example of why the narrative about the Lib Dems having done the dirty on them that Labour keeps pushing is nonsense. Our party is not the "natural" partner of Labour on lots of issues. Their reaction today is a stark reminder of that.
They should bear this in mind next time they hurl accusations of "betrayal" at us.