Steve Richards: Here we go again - but why does a Labour government fuel this hysteria over crime?

It is surely possible for a progressive government to frame a slightly more rational debate
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The Independent Online

Too often Tony Blair claims the mantle of boldness while tamely telling the public and the mighty right-wing establishment what it wants to hear. The current hysterical debate about sentencing, judges and prisons is only the latest example. Sadly there are many others.

I have been looking back at the main themes of Mr Blair's prime ministerial monthly press conferences since their introduction during the second term. Those that top the list are the primacy of Britain's alliance with the US in relation to the war against Iraq, the virtues of choice in public services, the primacy of markets as a way of delivering better value and the need for further changes to the criminal justice system.

Regularly Mr Blair has spiced his press conferences with attacks on parts of his own party for failing to support what he hails as a radical agenda. He is new and modern. They are old and backward looking. Yet his chosen themes are the ones that are familiar and safe. They echo Mrs Thatcher's favourite topics in the 1980s. She also lectured a willing electorate and media on the special relationship with the US, the private sector's unique virtues, the benefits of choice, and the need to put more people in prison. How much bolder it would have been to challenge some of these assumptions. One of the most intelligent Cabinet ministers describes this approach as "Blairite exceptionalism".

I am not arguing simplistically that the current government under Mr Blair's leadership is an extension of Thatcherism. On a thousand fronts it has moved on impressively. But, unlike Mrs Thatcher, Mr Blair has not used the pulpit of Downing Street to challenge the perceptions and assumptions of a previous era. Quite a lot of the time he has meekly reinforced them.

This is even truer of his favourite Cabinet minister. The Home Secretary, John Reid, often seeks to present policies as part of a deeply rooted, left-of-centre political philosophy. He demonstrates with mesmerising oratory, but fragile arguments, that Nye Bevan would have approved of the choice agenda and supported the war against Iraq. But Mr Reid's overriding ministerial philosophy is simpler. His duty is to carry out prime ministerial wishes with a noisy verve.

He has had much training in this particular art. As Transport Minister, Mr Reid went out of his way to give the private train operators an easy ride. The operators could hardly believe their luck. John Prescott had described the privatised railways as a "national disgrace", and was ready to take them on. But Mr Blair was terrified of appearing "anti business" and instructed Mr Reid to work constructively with the companies. Mr Reid announced loudly that this was his intention in a government that worked with business and not against it. As a result, the companies continued to under-invest and made huge profits.

When he was briefly Health Secretary, Mr Reid was so keen to please Mr Blair, with his "radical" support for choice and the private sector, that some of his policies have been amended already by his successor in order to avoid chaos. Now, Mr Reid goes even further. In his brief period as Home Secretary, he has attacked the Home Office as not "fit for purpose". I am told that his predecessor, Charles Clarke, had to be taken down from the ceiling as he watched Mr Reid's onslaught. After that Mr Reid infuriated the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, with his populist attack on a judge who had delivered a sentence determined by legislative constraints. This particular attack has caused an unprecedented amount of internal angst. The normally emollient Lord Falconer has stated publicly that the judge did nothing wrong. The former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who made a point of never attacking judges, has also declared that the judge was not at fault. But Mr Reid moves on. Now he shows an interest in allowing parental access to details about paedophiles.

In doing so he creates a contorted position in which it is the Conservatives who warn about rule by tabloid newspapers and the lynch mob. No doubt the contortion delights Mr Blair and his Home Secretary. I can hear Mr Blair conclude at a meeting with his advisers, "the Conservatives are getting on the wrong side of the argument on this one". We shall see. Even the Conservative MP, Ann Widdecombe, was more enlightened on the Today programme yesterday by placing some emphasis on the need for more effective rehabilitation programmes in prisons.

Ms Widdecombe is right. At the moment prison does not work because most prisoners reoffend. Instead of debating how many more people should be sent to prison, we should be asking why so many reoffend, and whether the right people are in the overcrowded jails. It is surely possible for a progressive government to frame a slightly more rational debate. Instead, the Government takes the short-term, safe option of fuelling the hysteria. Yet again the message of the 1980s and 1990s is dragged screaming and kicking into the 21st century. Once more we are told simplistically that prison works in the same way we were when the Conservatives ruled.

Mr Blair's conservatism on a range of policy areas is having a curious consequence. I popped into the left-of-centre Compass conference at the weekend and was struck by the absence of references to him. There was virtually no hostility, except from a few humourless extremists. It was more as if he hardly existed, and that on some fronts, the moderate centre left was starting from scratch.

The Treasury minister Ed Balls acknowledged a progressive consensus was not yet in place. The Cabinet Office minister Ed Miliband spoke of the need to establish an enlightened self-interest among middle class voters, who will lose out in a more atomised society. Together they provide a glimpse of Brownite thinking, at least in terms of seeking widespread support for measures to address poverty.

Yet it was odd, after nine years of a Labour government, to attend a conference where the current prime ministerial agenda was deemed irrelevant, rather than being the source of frenzied attacks or intense support. In some senses, the progressive wing in British politics is still in opposition, wondering whether their time will come.

In his 1982 letter to Michael Foot, published for the first time in last week's New Statesman, Tony Blair wrote, "I can honestly say that I am at my happiest addressing people that don't necessarily agree but are willing to listen."He was referring then to the narrow-minded insular debate on the left in the early 1980s. Yet still he is happiest taking on what is now a more docile Labour Party. What a shame that he has failed to challenge publicly more of the deeply embedded prejudices from the 1980s. In 1997 the voters indicated a willingness to listen to another story, only to be given a repeat of the one they had heard many times before.