Which One of These Men Would You Vote for? on the Left, David Blunkett, Labour Home Secretary. on the Right, Oliver Letwin, His Tory Shadow. but Should Their Positions Be Reversed? Nick Cohen Confronts a Shocking Truth

By Cohen, Nick | New Statesman (1996), November 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

Which One of These Men Would You Vote for? on the Left, David Blunkett, Labour Home Secretary. on the Right, Oliver Letwin, His Tory Shadow. but Should Their Positions Be Reversed? Nick Cohen Confronts a Shocking Truth


Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)


About this time last year, Harry Fletcher, a spokesman for the National Association of Probation Officers, received a call from a politely spoken man, asking if he would be good enough to meet Oliver Letwin, the shadow home secretary. Fletcher was taken aback. He had forgotten what it was like to be courted by politicians. Since Tony Blair seized on the murder of James Bulger when he was Labour's shadow home secretary in 1993 and began the competition between the parties to discover which might most shamelessly turn popular fears of crime to electoral advantage, Fletcher had been an often lonely opposing voice from outside the bounds of polite political society.

Examine the thousands of cuttings on the criminal justice system in the years since, and you will see why. There will be hundreds of Fletcher-inspired attacks on gesture politicians. When the Conservatives tested the electronic tagging of offenders in a pilot project in the north-east, they presented it as the first step towards a hyper-efficient, Robocop future. Fletcher checked the reality of techno-crime fighting with his members. One Geordie had ripped his tag off and fled to Brighton, they told him. (He gave himself up because he couldn't stand living with southerners.) A second kept waking up to the sound of security guards bursting into his house. He had done nothing wrong. It was just that when he rolled into a blind spot under his duvet, the alarm shrieked in the monitoring station. Virtually every new Labour initiative - from curfews to anti-social behaviour orders - has been punctured with similar aplomb. Fletcher is a kind of clearing house for the contemptuous and exhausted in the law and order bureaucracy; the men and women who have to cope with the consequences of a political hysteria that sees a new crime bill hitting parliament annually. As he is a far more informative and trustworthy source than the Home Office, his phone is clogged with pleading calls from correspondents gagging for leads and leaks.

The regime loathes him. Jack Straw denounced Fletcher as a relic of the Seventies" - the worst insult in the new Labour lexicon, implying a belief that you can't reduce crime without reducing poverty David Blunkett refuses to meet him or his union.

"Could you come round Thursday morning?" continued the nice young Tory, who apparently knew none of the above.

"Well, what time on Thursday morning?"

"Oh, all of Thursday morning."

Fletcher accepted and wondered how he might make conversation "with a load of Tories for three hours". As it was, the time shot by and everyone got on famously.

If it is possible to be further beyond the pale than Fletcher, then Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, is out there. The consequence of the competition that Blair began was a rise in the prison population from 42,000 to 72,000 (and it's still going up). Crook believes that prison is the worst place to put all but the most dangerous offenders; in part for their sake, in part because they will come out as hardened cons and commit worse crimes. Once a faintly Labourish sympathiser, she now sees Blair as the propagator of "the big lie that capricious, erratic and relentless imprisonment helps the victims of crime His monument is a "contagious culture in which revenge and punishment are the only appropriate responses to antisocial behaviour: the culture of a lynch mob".

Blunkett won't talk to her, either. Letwin did. She found him open and intelligent. Feeling faintly embarrassed, she accepted his invitation to a Conservative women's conference. Iain Duncan Smith and the other speakers from the platform talked about the need to care for the vulnerable. "What if the vulnerable are also antisocial and criminal?" she asked. They must be cared for, too, came the reply. Crook left not quite believing what she had heard.

While the Conservatives were looking for ideas from unlikely sources, Blunkett was lowering the moral standing of the Home Office even further. …

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