By Dan Katz
Michael Howard has attempted to create space between New Labour and the Tories on crime by promising a prison building programme, even greater numbers in jail, more police stop-and-search and less police "red tape".
Howard's plans include scrapping a current cap on prisoner numbers, which stands at 80,000, and a jail-building programme which could cost more than £2bn.
Prisons are a brutal and ineffective way of dealing with offending. Most of the people currently in jail should not be there at all. Many are now jailed for very minor offences - for shoplifting, minor thefts, or for debt. It would be better to deal with such anti-social behaviour through community service, social service support, education and training schemes.
Howard's message - "prison works" - is a cynical attempt to trawl for votes and play on a fear of crime. He may well simply drag new, authoritarian measures from Blunkett and Blair who attempt to close the political space by moving Labour even further right.
Blair has already promised to "end the 1960s' consensus on law and order".
Of course crime is a real worry for many voters. But the reality of crime is radically different for different classes. For the middle classes in suburbia serious crime is a rarity. For those on some inner-city estates, major crime and regular anti-social behaviour is a daily reality.
Howard's response is to attack the idea of rights: "Saying: 'I've got my rights' is the verbal equivalent of two fingers to authority."
He means those accused of crimes should have their existing rights curtailed.
Howard also proposes to stop the police giving a printed reason for stop-and-search, claiming that this procedure is "politically correct". His real message, stripped of code, which he hopes will translate into votes, is clear: the Tories will allow the police to sort out the - black - criminals.
Howard is further polluting mainstream political debate.