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Thursday, May 19, 2011 

The travails of Ken Clarke.

The age-old political conundrum of whether to focus on a long-term, policy led strategy or instead adopt a scattergun, short-term approach which grabs attention immediately but doesn't necessarily command it beyond the 24-hour news cycle has hardly been answered by the travails of Ken Clarke. Ed Miliband's decision to immediately demand his resignation following his catastrophic interview with Victoria Derbyshire on 5 Live might have felt like the right thing to do, putting David Cameron temporarily at least on the back foot at prime minister's questions, but the day after with Clarke still determinedly in position as justice secretary it instead smacks of the old, short-sighted politics Miliband has suggested he wanted to move away from.

Clarke's comments, if it wasn't already abundantly clear, were shockingly ill-thought through. His argument with Derbyshire was though, as Full Fact points out, based around the false premise that the average sentence for rape is 5 years. This was itself inspired by the Daily Mail's front page on Wednesday, which claimed that rapists who pleaded guilty at the earliest possible opportunity could end up serving only 15 months as result of Clarke's proposals that 50% rather than 33% be deducted from their sentence for such an quick admittance of responsibility. 5 years is in fact meant to be the starting point for judges in cases of rape, and the average sentence turns out to be between 7 and 8 years. Even so, it ought to have been apparent to Clarke that as soon as he responded to Derbyshire's comment that "rape is rape, with respect" with "no, it's not", that he had seriously erred. He then compounded it with his comments on the "less serious" nature of date rape, as well as how wrong he managed to get it on unlawful sexual intercourse, as a 17-year-old having consensual sex with a 15-year-old is not considered rape as he repeatedly suggested.

His failure to immediately apologise sincerely for "misspeaking", as no one is seriously claiming that he regards certain types of rape as less serious to the victim than others, having only really done so convincingly tonight on Question Time, has admittedly compounded the offence. This though seems to be more down to Clarke's old-fashioned stubbornness combined with his refusal to go into interviews thoroughly briefed than out of any genuine malice. More than anything, he was attempting to explain how someone convicted of rape might end up with only a 5 year sentence, even if his way of doing so was hopelessly out-dated and an example of his attempting to wing his way through encounters with journalists rather than read up on the subject.

If Clarke is going to be indicted on something, it ought to be on that score rather than on one of either belittling victims of rape, or actively endangering, even betraying women as the Sun claimed. As Sunny writes, Clarke's comments have resulted in some truly bizarre and very temporary alliances being forged. The Sun, which has been campaigning for some time for Clarke to be brought into line over his crime policies, so wedded as it is to the increasingly unaffordable and scandalously ineffective "prison works" orthodoxy, finds itself not only quoting old ally Jill Saward but also the head of the Fawcett Society, exactly the kind of lefty wimmin's organisation it usually mocks and pours scorn over.

Just how much thought went into Miliband's decision to call for Clarke's sacking is impossible to tell. If the idea was that the coalition as a whole might be weakened through his removal, with a less popular Tory put in his place, then this seems to overlook how it's mainly down to Clarke that the ridiculous, destructive battle over who could be tougher on criminal justice has been essentially brought to an end. Even if it was New Labour's change in position on crime which helped win over the support of the likes of the Sun in the first place, the leadership surely hasn't got such short memories that they've forgotten how they were tore into by that very same paper ad nauseum despite doing almost all they could to put their solutions into practice. Miliband seemed to have recognised that ending the war was in the best interests of all concerned, commenting that he wasn't going to say Clarke was soft on crime just because he was proposing reducing short sentences. He even continued this theme in... the Sun, as George Eaton notes.

Whether or not Jack Straw's pitiful "my view" in that same paper today was sanctioned by the leadership, which seems doubtful considering he refused to demand that Clarke be sacked tonight on Question Time, it gives the impression that Labour would rather return to a conflict they can't possibly win instead of just condemning the justice secretary's loose talk while offering tacit support for his bid to further credit earlier guilty pleas. It would be foolish to suggest that Miliband can do without the occasional piece of praise from the Sun, yet to win it over a chalice as poisoned as this one will do him no favours over the long term. Possible as it is that the party could win back support by adopting the kind of tougher stance proposed by Lord Ashcroft for the Tories, it leads to the problem Clarke has faced down: that locking more and more people up is simply unsustainable, in terms of cost both in money and to society at large. Labour desperately needs to win voters back without resorting to the dead end of triangulation. Resisting the temptation to indulge in cheap populism is vital to just such a strategy.

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no one is seriously claiming that he regards certain types of rape as less serious to the victim than others

What Clarke said was clumsily worded, and sounded (as everyone in the world has said) as if it endorsed the old myth that stranger rape is the only real rape. But most of what he said was actually correct, and the reaction to it has been deeply confused. Unless every rape has identical effects, some must be more serious than others. In reality judges do impose longer sentences for rapes with aggravating factors, violence most obviously - and if A is more serious than B, B must be less serious than A.

Exactly. What he was trying to elucidate, incredibly badly it should be said, is that the law does have to discriminate according to the facts of each individual case. He wasn't suggesting that rape isn't one of the most horrendous crimes imaginable, with terrible, debilitating effects for the victim, as some have wrongly in my view taken it as.

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