by Dan Hodges
“It’s a false choice”, we were told. Labour could let the liberals have their cake, and allow the squeezed middle to gorge on it as well.
Those warning that their party must decide between appealing to the “progressive majority”, and our lost small “c” conservative base, were trouble makers. Jaded soldiers, trying to fight the last war. Blairite “ultras”, unwilling or unable to come to terms with the brave world of the new politics.
There was no need to choose. To do so would be painful and divisive. Premature. We have had our fill of pain and division. Surely we’ve earned the right to rest awhile?
So rest we did.
Until last Wednesday. When the justice secretary barged in on Victoria Derbyshire, told her to stop being such a silly girl, and blithely explained that some rapes were worse than others and letting out the perpetrators half way through their sentences was a jolly good thing for their victims, and a jolly good thing for the country as well.
At which point, the centre-left rose as one. Took a deep breath. And went screamingly, maniacally, insane.
First manifestation of this group hysteria was in the House of Commons. Ed Miliband, strategically flanked by Yvette Cooper and Harrier Harman, rose to the dispatch box. This was the same Ed Miliband who had pledged solemnly in his leadership speech to back Kenneth Clarke over his liberal sentencing reforms. Not today. Ed hadn’t come to praise the justice secretary, but bury him. In a ten foot hole, while Yvette and Harriet poured a couple of gallons of quick-drying cement over him.
The narrative was clear. Clarke had trivialised rape. He had offended the victims of that crime, and offered succour to its perpetrators. He should be gone by the end of the day.
Such was the mood at that point, that anyone who questioned the tactical wisdom of calling for his head was in danger of losing their own. On the Twittersphere the activisti were in full cry. Ed Miliband had savaged Cameron. Clarke was bailing out of his interviews. The press scented blood. It was only a matter of time before he was gone. To think otherwise was to be a craven, anti-leadership, Tory entryist.
Then, suddenly, the narrative shifted. A new mob, pitchforks and torches in hand, stormed past. At their head marched the grim figure of Sadiq Kahn. This was the Sadiq Khan who told the fabians, “If Ken Clarke’s plans fail, this government will have undone much of the progress in criminal justice over the last 13 years that we now take for granted. If their apparently progressive policies don’t work, it will open the door for those in the Tory party who have a much more reactionary view. The progressives and our agenda will be brushed aside”.
Brushed aside? They were about to be torn limb from limb. Labour’s shadow justice secretary would see to that. “Clarke needs to ditch his policy, not clarify his outrageous comments”, he stormed. “It’s all very well Ken Clarke trying to clarify…but what he really needs to do is heed the concerns raised by victims of rape, the victims and witnesses commissioner, the judiciary and the Labour party and unequivocally ditch the policy to reduce by half the sentence of all offenders if they plead guilty”.
It was no longer about words or definition. It was now about the policy itself. The reactionaries in the Tory party weren’t going to get anywhere near Clarke’s progressive prospectus. Sadiq Kahn would ensure it was ablaze long before they even set foot in the room.
At least that was the plan. But wait? What was that sound? It was as if…
Out of nowhere a third mob burst forth. This was a very different crowd. Not farm-hands, but artisans and artists. The progressive majoritarians. And no less dangerous for it.
“The scale of Labour’s response was misjudged and revealing about its future positioning in relation to crime”, intoned Steve Richards in the Independent. “It’s Miliband, not Clarke, who should be ashamed”, declared his colleague Christina Patterson. “Ed Miliband’s call for Mr Clarke to go was overwhelmingly opportunist and reactionary. It was driven by an unprincipled alliance between the Labour party and the Daily Mail”, bellowed the Guardian.
The progressive alliance had descended into civil war. A savage war of peace.
Some continued to flail away blindly. Others stood frozen, unsure whether Clarke was now the new Peter Sutcliffe or the new Atticus Finch. No one better encapsulated the madness of that moment than my New Statesman colleague Mehdi Hasan. “It was ludicrous to call for resignation of Clarke. Bad politics and – crucially – bad policy on sentencing”, he blasted across Twitter. Those who disagreed and, “think being right-wing is good politics why not just join the Tories and be done with it”?
The circle squared. Calling for the resignation of Ken Clarke, the Conservative justice secretary, and attacking his policy on sentencing, now meant that you, yourself, were a Tory. The day before, querying Ed Miliband’s tactical wisdom in making the same call, had opened you up to a similar charge.
But remember. We do not need to choose.
We do not need clarity, or direction. A defined political path to follow. Instead we can jumble along, or rampage along, as we did this week.
There is no need for difficult choices. On law and order. Immigration. The economy. Welfare reform. Constitutional reform.
We are as one. All part of the same happy, progressive majority. The fact that some of us want sentencing policy reformed, and others want the message sent far and wide that Labour will lock them up and throw away the key, is a mere detail. A relic of the old politics. Tough decisions are so New Labour.
Because the public understands the subtleties and nuances. When Ed Miliband says “I’ll back Ken Clarke on liberal sentencing”, then says “Ken Clarke should resign because of liberal sentencing”, it makes perfect sense to them. Even better, the consistency reassures them. It tells them, if Labour’s strong and sure on minor issues, like the security of me and my family, it at least gives me some hope they’ll be steady on the big issues as well.
It’s what you hear on the doorsteps more than anything else. “Don’t make a false choice, young fella. You hedge your bets. That’s what people round here want. Compromise. That’s the name of the game”.
Ed Miliband got it right last week. He made that choice. He went for Clarke, even though he knew he faced a liberal backlash.
And that’s what we need more of. Hard choices. Hurt feelings. A whiff of grapeshot and betrayal.
This is the stuff of leadership. Not vacuous homilies about building a new progressive consensus. This week proved once and for all, there will be no consensus. There will be a series of arguments and battles and, heaven forbid, decisions to be made.
Even worse, some people won’t like them. Some people will downright hate them. Some may even take away their bat and their ball because of them.
Good. Ken Clarke is a victim of the old politics. For the sake of the Labour party, let’s pray he is not the last.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.