Talking Politics
  • On the morning of June 30th, they banned smoking in Melbourne prison. By afternoon, one of the worst riots in recent Australian penal history had broken out. Hundreds of inmates lit fires, broke walls and smashed windows in a 15-hour outbreak of disorder. Staff were evacuated and police units sent in. Footage from news helicopters showed prisoners wandering the grounds with their faces covered and sticks in their hands knocking down doors.

    By the next week, Western Australia’s correctional services minister, Joe Francis, decided he wouldn’t be following Victoria’s example. But in the UK, a recent court battle has seen a judge rule that there is no prison exemption from the smoking ban. Under fierce pressure from Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) and other anti-smoking groups, the government is planning on a pilot scheme banning smoking in prisons in Wales and the south-west, with a view to an eventual nationwide roll-out.

    “It would be crazy,” former prisoner Stephen Gedge says. “If

    Read More »from 'It'll be hell': The view from inside prison about a smoking ban
  • One key aspect has been missing from Michael Gove’s growing commitment to a more liberal prison policy: an understanding of numbers. After a very well-received speech earlier this month in which he outlined his thinking on the subject, the new justice secretary was asked if he recognised that without reducing the number of prisoners, and therefore improving the staff-to-inmate ratio, it would be impossible to give them the attention they needed for rehabilitation.

    Gove parked it. He gave what I thought to be a certain nod-of-the-head – or at least he did not rule it out. But he refused to say that prisoner numbers needed to be reduced.

    Today, in a remarkable statement from chief prison inspector Nick Hardwick, that point was made again, this time more forcefully. It came at the end of a damning report on conditions in Wandsworth prison, which holds 1,630 adult men – 70% of its certified normal accommodation of 963. Meanwhile, there were “severe staffing shortages” – where staff were down

    Read More »from Prison inspector to Gove: You need to reduce prison numbers
  • After a very drab and lifeless Labour leadership race, the sudden surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn has at last provided some entertainment by scaring the hell out of most media commentators. A private poll reported by the Mirror this morning showed he had actually extended his lead over his rivals, with Yvette Cooper skipping over Andy Burnham to take the second spot while Liz Kendall, the only one of the candidates who has even a flicker of a chance of winning, trails in fourth.

    The idea that a left-winger could win the Labour leadership is being treated as akin to a swarm of locusts blotting out the sun. The newspapers which spent so long praising Nigel Farage’s hard-right agenda as plain-speaking, man-of-the-people political genius are now falling over themselves to warn Labour off electing someone radical on the left. Labour officials are double-checking everyone who signs up to the party as a potential ‘entryist’. The party is as terrified of democracy as it has ever been. Its

    Read More »from What Jeremy Corbyn could learn from Liz Kendall
  • Britain loves to pat itself on its back. We love due process and the rule of law. But if the last couple of days demonstrate anything, it’s that we’re as susceptible to mob rule as anywhere else. But instead of pitchforks we use grand phrases like ‘bringing into disrepute’ and 'undermining public confidence’. It adds up to the same thing. The rules and laws don’t matter. What matters is whatever the press and the public demand.

    This morning Lord Sewel quit the House of Lords. The pressure on him was immense. The police were battering down his front door, the prime minister was making critical statements, the radio airwaves were jammed with parliamentarians crawling over themselves to condemn him. He had been judged quite independently of any formal process.

    Two reasons were given for why he had to go immediately rather than be investigated by the standards committee: that it would take too long and that they might not come to the conclusion everyone had already decided they had to come

    Read More »from Lord Sewel is the latest victim of British mob rule
  • As surely as night follows day, calls for departmental cost-cutting are met by promises to privatise more services. It seems intuitive - farm it all out to the private sector and cut your costs. And that’s not even to mention the media-saturated propaganda about how much more efficient the private sector is, how the profit motive means it gets more things done better for less money than the public sector.

    So with Michael Gove facing up to 40% cuts to his department, he’ll likely be tempted to follow the same route. Before he does so he should look at the statistics his owndepartment published earlier this month. At the request of the justice select committee, it was asked to separate out the data for private and public prisons.

    It categorically disproves the claims of private sector efficiency.

    Twenty-three per cent of the prison budget is spend on private prisons. But private firms don’t run a quarter of the prisons. In fact they run just 13 of the 124 prisons and National Offender

    Read More »from It's official: Private prisons cost taxpayer more than state prisons
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    It’s time to get on the scandal bus. Lord Sewel has been photographed taking cocaine with prostitutes. He’s dressed up in a leather jacket with a bra, in a manner which suggests he is relaxed about having a good time. He sits about chatting politics with women of the night. Let’s all have a laugh. We can all gather round with the reliable English mixture of protestant moralising and lewd childish jeering and have a good old time at his expense.

    It’s time to dust off the weird, faded lexicon of the sexual scandal. Lord Sewel gets the “disgraced” moniker – a phrase which implies, but has no actual connection to, legal judgement. It is the tabloid editors who decide when someone is disgraced, although they obviously never choose to apply it to themselves. He has apparently been “cavorting” with prostitutes in a drug-fuelled “romp”. No-one ever seems quite sure what a romp entails. Does a kiss entail a romp, or does it need to be full-on sex? It is like a perfectly-preserved bit of 1980s

    Read More »from What Lord Sewel gets up to is none of our business
  • Yvette Cooper is a B candidate in a C candidate race. In a sane world, she wouldn’t get a look-in to a contest for the leadership of Britain’s main opposition party. But this is not a sane world, so she is probably, overall, the most intellectually impressive of the candidates.

    Andy Burnham has no intellect to speak of at all, Jeremy Corbyn is a warmed-up meal from the 1970s without any of the political ingenuity to make that a palatable dining option in 2015, and Liz Kendall is a tactic in search of a strategy.

    There is a sliver – one wouldn’t want to put it any higher than that - of intellectual substance to Cooper. Which is why it was a disappointment to listen to her Today programme interview this morning. Unfortunately, it typified her approach to the campaign.

    It’s not inadequacy which leads her to behave this way. It’s cynicism. There’s plenty of evidence that Cooper is a relatively interesting political figure. She just refuses to reveal it.

    Take her response to George Osborne’s

    Read More »from Yvette Cooper's campaign is just a string of platitudes
  • Tony Blair’s Labour followers have always claimed to be the wing of the party which cares most about winning.

    Certainly under Blair’s leadership that was always the case. Whatever you think of the man, he won three successive elections for the party - something no other Labour leader has ever managed.

    However, since Blair’s departure, this desire to win seems to have totally deserted his supporters and the man himself.

    David Miliband’s defeat to his brother in 2010 was a huge surprise for most commentators, yet it was wholly predictable. Miliband had the Labour leadership in his hands yet threw it away out of an arrogant refusal to move towards his party’s own supporters.

    His successor Liz Kendall has taken a similar and even more election-losing trajectory. She began her campaign by winning gushing plaudits from right-wing papers and is set to finish it with the support of little more than one in ten Labour supporters.

    A new YouGov poll out yesterday puts her in a distant fourth

    Read More »from Tony Blair is to blame for the rise of Jeremy Corbyn
  • By Ian Dunt

    We know it’s coming, because they keep telling us. They just won’t give us any details. The counter-extremism bill will clamp down on non-violent freedom of speech. But exactly what speech and by whom? That is unclear.

    David Cameron’s speech on extremism was hyped as the most important he has delivered on the subject. The extracts released in advance were extremely wishy-washy and confused. So was Theresa May’s subsequent appearance on the Today programme, in which she was again unable or unwilling to say exactly which kinds of free speech would be outlawed. Education secretary Nicky Morgan had a similar problem in relation to public bodies’ new legal responsible to prevent extremism a few weeks back.

    The problem is this: If you really ban groups and people ‘opposed to British values’ - defined apparently by those who want to overthrow democracy - you’ll need to ban the Socialist Workers party and Platonist philosophers alongside Islamic extremists.

    This difficulty is never

    Read More »from When will the government tell us what kind of free speech it's going to ban?
  • Future historians will look back on last week as the moment Boris Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions finally washed away into the muddy waters of the Thames.

    His full-body soaking at the hands of the home secretary in the House of Commons was so brutal it was almost difficult to watch. Theresa May’s demolition of Johnson’s case for bringing water cannon to the streets of London was so comprehensive, so cutting and so utterly devastating for the London mayor, you half expected the Metropolitan police to apprehend her for common assault.

    With an increasingly meek looking Johnson sat behind her, May explained that the 25-year-old second hand German water cannon Johnson bought without her permission, would “pose a series of direct and indirect medical risks,” to protesters, including “musculoskeletal injuries such as spinal fracture, as well as other serious injuries such as concussion, eye injury and blunt trauma”. One 66-year old German protester had been completely blinded by similar

    Read More »from Boris Johnson's water cannon farce reveals why he will never be prime minister


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