Setting the Scene: New Labour, Old Anxieties
IN WAYS ECHOING THE LATE-VICTORIAN TRANSITION FROM THE 19TH TO THE 20TH century, the late-modern anxieties of fin-de-siecle and new-century Britain  coalesce around themes of social exclusion, fear of crime, and questions about the morality and waywardness of young people. Sociopolitical images of "falling standards" and a "decline in moral values" are commonly expressed in the otherwise competing discourses of the new Labour government and the Conservative opposition, and find further representation in news features and editorials, TV documentaries and talk shows. The recurrence of such perceptions is now well established (Pearson, 1983) and hence we should, perhaps, not be surprised to see them ascendant again. However, for many people, it was hoped that a new Labour government, elected with a dramatic majority in 1997, would bring a new political vision. Intimations were that "New Labour" (as it had restyled itself) would be committed to addressing social exclusion and "social wrongs" and to championing social justice and human rights. As the political parties and media sta rt to prepare for the next election, this essay reviews aspects of Labour's period of office, particularly in relation to criminal justice, and places developments and debates in recent historical, as well as comparative, contexts.
Since the early 1980s, complex concerns have repeatedly been addressed by Conservative and now New Labour administrations through appeals to nostalgia and promises to recreate the safety, security, and reasons to "feel good" of earlier decades (Young, 1999: 49-50). The Conservatives promised a "Back to Basics" return to the moral values of a more settled, orderly, and consensual past, but then faced an embarrassment of rich news stories about the moral failings of senior members of their own government. Under New Labour, Prime Minister Tony Blair has shown a fondness for speeches that political commentators compare to the kind of moralizing sermons one would expect to hear from the Church pulpit -- satisfyingly reassuring that values are still important, but nonthreatening in their implications for the converted of the congregation. Perhaps intended for a different audience, early on in its administration, New Labour's spin doctors and supportive media promoted the vision of a new Cool Britannia, an idea har king back to an earlier period, the 1960s. This was a time when postwar renewal was achieved and now Britain was experiencing cultural excitement and economic prosperity, coupled with (measured and controlled) liberal social reforms, all of which reflected well on the Labour government of the day.
It is obviously attractive to political parties to find that they can woo voters with comforting promises of a return to less-troubled times. Even New Labour's declaration that it is the party of "modernization" carefully adds that this is to be achieved by valuing and building upon the strengths of tradition. Such promises are contradictory and unrealistic. They appeal to images of the past that are now so reconstructed by memory and media that these have become edited versions of history, repackaged by a thriving nostalgia industry (McQuire, 1997). Inevitably, the realities of crime and victimization in the here and now remain unchanged, and invariably governments--of the Right and now the Left--turn to calls for "more policing, more law, more punishment" as "the answer." This social policy prescription for crime control represents one of the clearest areas in which political convergence between the Right and Left has occurred in British politics. In 1997, at his first Party Conference as home secretary of the new Labour government, Jack Straw told delegates: "We said we would make Labour the party of law and order. And we did." Since this title had previously been the proud claim of the Conservative governments of the 1980s and early 1990s, some on the Left complained that they could see little difference between the criminal justice policies of the new government and those of their predecessors. Notwithstanding New Labour's acknowledgment of links between social conditions and crime and its creation of the Social Exclusion Unit as a policy task force to address issues of social deprivation and community disadvantage, the continuation of a populist punitive approach has been evident (Criminal Justice Matters, 1999/2000). In the process, New Labour runs the risk of perpetuating what Brownlee (1998) has described as a "punishment deficit," which comes from a mismatch between supply and demand regarding forms of punishment that will (supposedly) make society safer. The contradictions between "getting tough" on c rime and the other main strand of penal policy, securing greater efficiencies and economies (since rehabilitation is no longer an aim), are therefore apparent:
Political rhetoric which...prioritizes an aggressive and unmistakably punitive response to even middle-order and petty offending (the so-called "zero-tolerance" approach) serves primarily to stimulate a "taste" in the public for punishment. Once excited, this desire can become insatiable, as appears to have happened in the United States of America.... In the end, by continuing to allow the prison population to expand, therefore, the recourse to populist punitive "solutions" merely reproduces the very pressures upon the system which provoked the move to actuarial justice and the abandonment of more reintegrative strategies in the first place, threatening to bring into even starker relief the limitations and inequities inherent in that approach (Brownlee, 1998: 327).
The Prison as a Political Barometer
In malting sense of late-modern tensions in criminal justice policy, imprisonment provides us with a stark barometer of the condition of democracy in society. This point has long been recognized, for as de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, while "the United States gives the example of the most extended liberty, the prisons of that same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism" (cited in Garland, 1990: 11). More recently, Bauman (1995: 205) has argued that the massive experiment with incarceration underway in the USA since the early 1970s is a "totalitarian solution without a totalitarian state." That over one in three young, urban, black males are under some form of criminal justice supervision (Mauer, 1997) has usually been characterized as an instance of "American exceptionalism." In this sense, it is taken as evidence of the continuing presence of urban apartheid, the destruction wrought by the war on drugs, the success of the intellectual campaign mounted by the Right against the Civil Rights Movement, and the dramatic shift in public expenditure from welfare provision to the penal estate.
However, similar processes are also occurring across Western Europe. For example, the prison population in England and Wales, which represented the highest rate of imprisonment per capita in Europe at the end of the 20th century, is expected to reach 82,800 in 2005. In particular, young second-generation Afro-Caribbean men are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than are their white or Asian counterparts, while West Indian women are 10 time more likely to be imprisoned in Britain than are white females (Wacquant, 1999: 216). Wacquant suggests that similar figures can be found for Turks and Gypsies in Germany, or Tunisians and Albanians in Italy. His argument is that the non-European foreigner has become a "suitable enemy" (Christie, 1986): both a symbol of, and target for, all social anxieties and thus legitimating the drift toward the penal management of poverty (a point to which we shall return).
Of course, all of this is not occurring on the same scale as within the North American experience. What we wish to emphasize is that there are shared tendencies at work on either side of the Atlantic. These would include governmental faith in the freedom of the market, the dismantling of the welfare state, and the criminalization of poverty. We will argue that these tendencies raise fundamental questions about the nature of social justice in Western societies, specifically regarding the human rights and civil liberties costs of exiling "the outcasts," of the denial of basic rights of citizenship, and of the increasing number of those in poverty who are excluded from participation in societies where measures of individual worth are …