Blood, Sweat and Peers

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Can Howard be a man of the centre? Pat Stack doubts it.

How cruelly ironic that within days of Michael Howard's elevation (if that can possibly be the correct term) to leader of the Conservative Party the story should emerge of Joseph Scholes, a 16 year old boy who hanged himself last March at an institution for juvenile offenders.

Joseph's crime was to steal a mobile phone. He had offended before, but this was not the key thing to know about him. Far more important and relevant was that he was a sexually abused and deeply disturbed youngster who had a history of self harm.

He had slashed his own face over 30 times in the week before he was imprisoned. Here was someone badly damaged, with shocking life experiences and a miserable existence. Here was someone who, although it may not have felt it to the victims of his crimes, was extremely vulnerable.

In his previous existence as a man with 'something of the night' about him, Howard had told us all that 'prison works'. He had done so at one of those bloodcurdling sessions at Tory Party conference on law and order. These always remind me of that very funny folk song doing the rounds in the early 1970s, 'Alice's Restaurant'. The song, written by Arlo Guthrie, told the tale of a young man trying to avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam who decides to prove to the army shrink he's mad by leaping up and down, shouting:

'I wanna kill I wanna kill/I wanna see blood and gore and guts in my teeth/Eat dead burnt bodies'.

Soon the shrink is leaping up and down with him yelling, 'Kill, kill, kill!' and Guthrie is told he is exactly what the army is looking for.

Anyway, Tory law and order debates are just like that. There is no measure of judicial revenge too great, too nasty or too cruel that they would not support it, and no one could take them to orgasmic heights quite like Howard when he was home secretary.

The fact is, of course, that prison doesn't work.

Many inmates come out damaged, brutalised and likely to reoffend. Some have become better, more efficient criminals, having mixed with the best crime has to offer. Even worse, some simply can't cope, and end up taking their own lives.

None of this, of course, need worry those who play on hysteria and fear. 'Oh, everyone worries about the criminal, nobody cares about the victims of crime,' goes the most ludicrous cliché of all.

Joseph Scholes was jailed at a moment when the tabloids went into overdrive about street crime, and the government began demanding custodial sentences and attacking 'soft judges'.

Which brings us to David Blunkett. Because among the many crimes of New Labour, with the exception of butchering innocent people anywhere Bush fancies a bloodbath, none surely is worse then the reactionary policies of successive home secretaries.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse than Jack Straw, along comes Blunkett. The man has recently excelled himself.

On being told that the BBC had made a programme in which an undercover reporter exposed the most blatant and awful racism among trainee cops, he chose to attack the BBC for 'making news instead of reporting it'. He has since apologised, but his first instinct tells you all you need to know about him.

Labour Party conferences will never produce audiences leaping up and down shouting, 'Kill, kill, kill', but their government has been so 'tough on crime' and so disinterested in the 'causes of crime' that they have been as reactionary as any Tory administration.

They have limited access to jury trials, attacked legal aid, and now want ID cards (previously the pet project of the likes of Thatcher). Meanwhile youngsters take their own lives, and no senior politician gives a damn.

It makes the prospect of the next general election a truly frightening one. For Howard's attempt to repackage himself as a man of the centre is a joke. Let us remember that both Hague (baseball hats in Notting Hill) and Duncan Smith (Theresa May's 'we are seen as the nasty party') tried to pull the Tories to the 'centre right'.

So well have Blair, Straw and Blunkett occupied that space that in the end the Tories were forced back to xenophobic rants about Europe, hysteria about law and order, and spouting filth about asylum seekers.

I have no doubt that's the toxic ground Howard will be drawn back to. I have no doubt he'll be more successful at it than Duncan Smith (my pet gerbil Perve would be for god's sake) and have more gravitas then Hague (my pet hamster Moose certainly has).

How will New Labour respond? Essentially by saying, 'Look, we've locked them up and thrown away the key,' and though the language may be more temperate they will still say 'Look, we are kicking all these bogus asylum seeking scroungers out. We are tough on crime, tough on asylum - you couldn't be harder than us!'

What a delightful debate! Governments that do nothing to solve 'the causes of crime', who allow public services to wither, who allow inner city areas to become wastelands, who brag of a low wage economy, create bitterness and resentfulness.

When those governments throw in tough talk on law and order and asylum, they point to handy scapegoats to be the targets for that bitterness and resentment.

When opposition parties who have nothing to offer turn up the volume of the howls of rage in a desperate bid for votes, then the arguments of the BNP seem all the more respectable and sensible. The bitter and resentful can find a nasty new home.

Meanwhile a desperate, damaged young man has taken his own life in a cold prison cell - just one sad example of the victims of the policies of New Labour and the politics of Howard.

Something of the night indeed!