Leadership candidates on Ken Clarke proposals and deficit

This week’s prime minister’s questions posed at least two questions for Labour: first, how to react to Ken Clarke’s prison proposals. Second, whether to take up David Cameron’s invitation “to engage in this debate (on deficit reduction), rather than playing this pathetic game of pretending there wouldn’t be cuts under Labour.”

Some Labour contributions to PMQs and Jack Straw’s article in the Daily Mail suggest that we are about to attack Clarke from the right. Steve Richards, who chaired Wednesday’s leadership hustings in Lambeth, has since dismissed this as madness. Different views have been expressed on Labour Uncut. But what did the candidates have to say to Lambeth on this? 

They repeatedly stressed that Clarke’s actions are motivated by saving money, not sincere reformist zeal. “A u-turn driven by money”, as Andy Burnham – an advocate of tougher community sentencing – put it. Money which, Ed Balls argued, should be going into the early interventions and youth services that keep kids on the right track and out of prison. Diane Abbott, meanwhile, called for us to stop “chasing Daily Mail headlines”, bemoaned privatisations of parts of the prison estate and called for “a serious debate on prisons”.

Various panelists stressed that drugs, mental health and illiteracy must be important elements in such a debate, while David Miliband argued that the success of any reforms to the penal system should be judged not by the number of people in prison but by the number of crimes. Falling crime meant that his criterion of success was satisfied while Labour was in government, as he reminded the audience.

His brother was more challenging, however, asserting that Ken Clarke’s actions left Labour with a choice: attack from the right or change the debate on criminal justice. He indicated a strong preference for the latter. While there were differences of emphasis, the general sense was that all the contenders broadly favour this approach.

More differences emerged when they were questioned on the deficit, however. The bankers received greatest scorn from Abbott, who advocated the scrapping of Trident and immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan as savings to be made. No other candidate joined her in offering these savings.

But there was a definite consensus for tax taking more of the strain of deficit reduction than under the Tory-Lib Dem government’s plans. David Miliband embraced this consensus while warning of the dangers of Labour being perceived as a high tax party. He also echoed the stress which all speakers placed upon strong economic growth by saying that he wants Labour to be “the party of wealth creation”. He claimed that the lack of business people backing Labour at the general election showed that we had ceased to be this.

Ed Balls associated himself with J. M. Keynes and President Obama in stressing growth: “the lesson of history is that deficits get out of control when growth collapses”. Andy Burnham went further in advocating cuts by proposing that NHS spending should not increase in real terms. The coalition is for such an increase, but Burnham claims that this comes at too great a cost to resources available to social care and other services. While Ed Miliband reminded the audience that we went into the general election with a deficit reduction strategy informed by very different values from those which inform the coalition’s strategy, it remains to be seen whether his understanding of Labour values is consistent with Burnham’s NHS proposal.

There was a lot of passionate resistance to the coalition’s cuts on. But, in spite of the shared advocacy of greater emphasis on tax and growth, the candidates still had little to say about an alternative deficit reduction strategy.

As the summer wears on, they will need to think of something.

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