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Leading article: New Labour's reactionary agenda has failed

When New Labour was in opposition, it adopted a progressive stance on questions of crime and punishment. In 1993, Tony Blair famously spoke of the need to be tough, not only on crime but also "the causes of crime". When the former home secretary, Michael Howard, declared that "prison works", he was criticised for being dangerously over-simplistic.

But New Labour in office has been a very different beast. Since 1997 we have been subject to a succession of home secretaries, each wielding more reactionary policies on criminal justice than the last. New Labour's approach to criminal justice over the past decade has amounted to a crude demand that the courts lock more up people - and that they lock them up for longer. All those progressive intentions on crime and punishment have crumbled in the face of sustained hysteria whipped up by the populist press.

Yet as Mr Blair's government sinks ever further into a failing reactionary agenda, there are distinct signs the rest of the country is tiring of this approach. The response of the parents of Tom ap Rhys Pryce to the sentencing of his murderers this week was significant. Rather than expressing hatred for Donnel Carty and Delano Brown, they spoke of their pity for the murderers. They have also set up a foundation to help young people in deprived areas avoid a similar path. Mr Pryce's parents do not feel the solution to rising levels of violent crime is ever harsher punishments.

The rest of the political parties are also showing a greater understanding that crime is not just a problem to be addressed by the police and the courts, but by the whole of our society. The Conservatives are finally beginning to accept that prison alone can achieve nothing. This is not before time. We learnt yesterday that the UK prison population has risen to more than 80,000 - the largest number incarcerated in British history. As the former chief inspector of prisons points out in The Independent today, this has created chaos.

The Tories also accept now that there are too many mentally ill people in prisons and that treatment for drug addicts inside is inadequate. The scandalous lack of training and education for prisoners is also beginning to get the attention it deserves from politicians. David Cameron has even questioned the lack of opportunities for many young people before they come into contact with the criminal justice system. In other words, the spotlight has returned, once again, to the causes of crime.

Those on the left of the political spectrum have been forced to question a few old preconceptions on crime too. Few now argue that criminality is fundamentally a response to poverty. A credible new study has found that many of those who engage in violent street muggings do not do so primarily for the money, but rather for the sheer thrill of attacking someone. Awareness is growing across the political spectrum of just how poisonous elements of street culture have become.

There is also an acceptance from the left that the role of the family cannot be ignored. It is clear that the majority of those who slip into criminality come from broken homes and abusive backgrounds. This is not to say that the chauvinist "back to basics" perspective, that denigrates single mothers and other unorthodox family structures, has been proved correct. But there is an increased understanding that stability is lacking from too many young lives.

All of this has profound implications for public policy. It will require genuinely progressive political leadership to push the necessary measures through. Most of all, it will require the kind of courage that has been so conspicuously lacking from this present government.