In the midst of Jeremy Corbyn’s radical plans to transform Britain, it’s perhaps surprising to learn that Labour is still “tough on crime and the causes of crime”. That most Blairite of slogans- albeit one thought up by Gordon Brown- shaped the New Labour government’s approach to criminal justice policy over 13 years from 1997. Over this period, harsher sentencing – in particular for repeat offenders, caused prison numbers to rise from 60,000 to 85,000. Had Brown won the 2010 election, we were promised a total of 96,000 places by 2014 plus an outlandish plan to use the tax system to claw back from higher-earning offenders a proportion of the costs of prison.
How then to square Labour’s retention of the tough on crime mantra in their 2017 manifesto with a welcome vision of prison as a last resort, "the state’s most severe sanction for serious offences"? It’s partly no doubt a matter of what the Americans call "optics"- how the policy will look, whatever it actually does. It also reflects divisions within the party about the direction of penal policy which came to a head last year when calls for an end to the penal arms race were met with scorn by the Blairite old guard. For them, the slogan will provide a welcome continuity with the past.
But for Labour’s new vanguard there are attractions too. A 2017 Labour government would of course be aiming to attack the causes of crime by the raft of measures designed to relieve social deprivation and reduce inequality.But what about dealing with people in conflict with the law?
The manifesto’s recognition that prison is too often a dumping ground for people needing treatment rather than punishment opens up the idea that a determined and durable crime policy does not have to mean an ever increasing custodial population. A programme to expand residential and community based options for people with mental health and drug problems could provide a more effective and no less rigorous way forward. Expansion of restorative justice –promised in Ed Miliband’s 2015 manifesto and now repeated two years on-could also offer demanding alternatives to prosecution and prison.
On prisons themselves, the 2017 manifesto promises an end to future prison privatisation and a review of Community Rehabilitation Companies but not an immediate return to public ownership of prisons or probation bodies currently run for profit. More and better trained prison staff, personal rehabilitation plans for all prisoners and a review of mental health services in prisons are proposed as ways of reversing the woeful deterioration of conditions in recent years. Sensible of course but radical enough? After all we have heard before that “the prison service now faces serious financial problems. We will audit the resources available … and seek to ensure that prison regimes are constructive and require inmates to face up to their offending behaviour”. That was New Labour in 1997, not so different from today.