Behind Keir Starmer’s new approach to prisons is a cautious message

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Good morning. Keir Starmer and his cabinet have worked through the weekend, in a move that is both sincere and cynical.

It’s sincere because the early election meant that, although access talks continued with the civil service throughout the contest, both ministers and aides freely conceded that they did not have as many as they would have liked. They badly need — and want — to make up the running.

It’s cynical because the political impact of working through the weekend, flooding the airwaves with pictures and clips of Labour ministers working their socks off and talking about how everything is broken, are all designed to leave voters with the same message.

In both policy and political terms, the next four years will be geared towards fighting a “we’re sorry for the inconvenience, please bear with us” election. The Labour party wants to be able to point to a tangible process of turning the many, many red lights across the public realm to green — while many of those lights will be amber, and large numbers may still be red.

Some thoughts on the two policy areas that Labour has been the loudest on, and why, over the course of the weekend.

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Sails on the ship hoping to save a shipwreck

Occasionally in reshuffles there are job changes that make Westminster and Whitehall sit up and take notice — often for political reasons, such as Sajid Javid’s resignation and Rishi Sunak’s rapid rise, or the return of David Cameron to the cabinet. Other times, it is for policy reasons: Theresa May putting three Brexiters in charge of her EU policy, and making Priti Patel, a sceptic of foreign aid, secretary of the department for international development.

Those policy-related moves all predate the 2019 election. Since then, the Conservative party has been more concerned with optics than outputs — one part of why it went down in a historically bad defeat on Thursday. As Henry Mance writes in his excellent piece on Sunak’s political career:

Broadly, Sunak did not live up to his billing as a technocrat. “His entire question on a policy issue is: how many votes will this get me?” said one veteran Conservative, who saw Sunak at work. “He’s not good enough to be a technocrat.”

The appointment of James Timpson and Patrick Vallance to ministerial roles makes you sit up and take notice for policy reasons. Vallance must be the most high profile first-time minister ever appointed to the Lords, due to the former chief scientific adviser’s television appearances during the pandemic. In terms of signalling the new government’s desire to listen to expertise, among the public as a whole it is the biggest sign you could send.

But the appointment of Timpson, chief executive of the shoe-repair and key-cutting business Timpsons, as prisons and probations minister, is more significant. Timpson was chair of the Prison Reform Trust until his surprise appointment, and his company is an all-too-rare employer that is willing to employ former convicts. He knows the territory of prisons and probation like few others.

To the extent that Timpson was seen as having a party political identity, he was regarded in Westminster as being closer to the Conservatives: he backed Brexit and his brother, Edward, was an education minister under David Cameron and Theresa May. Bringing him into government has excited prison reform experts across the political spectrum and earned praise from Conservative MPs.

This was astute because Starmer’s new approach to prisons — he has said that the UK builds too few prisons and jails too many people — are going to be politically controversial. Finding appointments who excite Labour’s liberal base, stakeholders in the prison system and win admiration from some Tories will make that very hard task somewhat easier.

Starmer used the word “broken” to refer to the prison system, a word that Wes Streeting also used to describe the NHS. As I say, almost everything the government will say for the next four years will centre on the message that a lot has been done, but much more remains to do. The reason for focusing on the NHS is obvious — its condition was the most important single factor in the election result and turning it around is the biggest expectation that people have of Labour, as this research by Public First makes clear.

The focus on the prisons system reflects two things: first, it is a personal political priority of Starmer’s. As I said on the FT’s election panel on Friday, frontbenchers and staffers on the justice brief are used to a level of interest and direction from the Labour leader unlike any other department, to both their delight and sometimes their frustration.

The second is that while there are sadly very few votes to be won in getting prison policy right, there are many votes to be lost in getting it wrong. Labour politicians strongly believe that the alleged escape of Daniel Khalife and the murder of Zara Aleena by a prisoner out on probation would have been much bigger and more politically destructive stories if Labour had been in power. (As one minister put it to me: “Daniel Khalife escapes under the Tories and there are a lot of jokes about how hot he looks. The first escape under Labour will be wall-to-wall coverage in the Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun, all amplified by the BBC.”)

As Starmer says, he can’t build new prisons overnight. His hope is that his new policy approach will be able to yield improvements over the next decade, while his rhetorical strategy of emphasising how everything is broken is designed to win him the time to turn things around.

Now try this

I saw two electrifying performances yesterday: the first was Bukayo Saka, the player who did the most to make things happen for England yesterday and who showed his nerve in stepping up to take a penalty in the shootout.

But the second was in Alma Mater, an excellent new production at the Almeida Theatre. It’s a sophisticated, humane and well-drawn drama about college harassment that is brilliantly staged and acted — I was particularly impressed by Justine Mitchell, who stepped in to play the lead role at the last minute due to illness. The switch was so late, in fact, that she was still using her script, but her performance, and indeed, her clever use of the script as a prop at times meant that you simply didn’t notice. Tickets are still available and it is on until July 20. Sarah Hemmings’ review is here.

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