A few weeks ago I caught part of an edition of Brian Taylor’s Big Debate, live from the Bar-L (Brian is so hardened to the prospect of Twitter jail that the real thing holds no fears for him). The audience was made of up of prisoners, prison officers, social workers, criminal justice professionals and the like, while the panel was pretty much standard fare for a topical debate show. As you might expect, the focus was on the penal and criminal justice systems and policies that affected the venue day in, day out, and what was clear was that the idea of rehabilitation and reintegration into society after prison is firmly established within the professional and political classes who wrestle with these issues. Speaker after speaker decried the idea that prisoners should end their sentence with nothing more than a travel warrant and a letter for the DWP, and instead emphasised the importance of the state and wider society aiding ex-inmates with their entrance back into ‘polite’ society. I couldn’t agree more.
So it was interesting to see the reaction to ex-MP/MSP Lord Mike Watson’s attempts to regain membership of the Labour Party. Watson was gaoled in September 2005 for 16 months, after admitting guilt on a charge of willful fire-raising, serving his sentence in Saughton Prison and being released after 8 months in gaol. The exact nature of Watson’s crime would best be described as “getting absolutely pished at a posh hotel, being annoyed he got a knockback at the bar, then setting fire to some curtains as a kind of pisshead’s revenge.” It shouldn’t really be necessary to stress the next bit, but for the hard of thinking, here goes: no-one, not least myself, condones what Mike Watson did that night. You’re waiting for the ‘however’ now, right?
However, he’s served his sentence. He resigned from the Scottish Parliament on the day he pled guilty, and remains a parliamentarian in the House of Lords only by dint of the archaic rules around membership and eligibility (if he’d be an MP, he’d have been automatically out on his jacksie, guilty plea or not). Unfunny eejits like me continue to crack jokes about curtains whenever the opportunity arises (in my defence let me say I resisted the childish urge to bellow “It’s curtains fur you, pal!” when I passed him near Victoria Station, London, last year). He hasn’t, to my knowledge, re-offended or broken the conditions of his early release since 2006. I very much doubt the usefulness of the House of Lords as a revising, second chamber, but their curtains and other draperies remain untarnished. In short, he has got on with his life, easy though that may be with a guaranteed income for attendance at Westminster. How long are we to dangle his inebriated felony above him and lash out at anyone or any organisation he associates with?
As the guests on Brian Taylor repeated time after time, allowing and encouraging ex-offenders to re-integrate themselves back into society should be – and I think has been for over a decade now – the prime focus of the post-penal section of our criminal justice system. Mike Watson’s ‘society’, if you like, was the Labour party. A Labour activist, Labour employee, Labour MP, Labour Lord, then Labour MSP. I can tell you, as a member of another political party, that your party membership doesn’t just come with a declaration of political principles; it comes with an entire social network of friends, relationships, events, and memories, that are just as much a part of your day to day life as the former schoolmate and workmates you duck down the pub with. It seems to me, therefore, that part of Watson’s return to ‘polite’ society means him attempting to rejoin the party with whom he spent nearly all his adult life.
I couldn’t give a toss about the application itself. Whilst I’m eager to ensure as few people sign up for Labour membership as possible, it’s a battle I’m going to lose from time to time. What irks me instead is the idea that politics and politicians should be almost uniquely excluded from the idea of rehabilitation and reintegration. If Jimmy the Joiner goes to the gaol for some unspecified offence, it would be crazy for his social worker to say to him upon his release, “You’re not going back to the circular saw again, even if you can find a job with it” (although if Jimmy the Joiner turned out to be Jeffrey Dahmer, the SW might have a point). There has to come a point where the sins and crimes of the past become merely the punchline to a poor joke or two, not a reason to exclude someone from the arenas they formerly kicked about in, and certainly not a reason to criticise their attempted purchase of a plastic card from a political organisation.
If we’re prepared to give Watson a going over for his sins, how many people itching to donate themselves to politics and the betterment of society take a look at the times they’ve been steaming, stoned, angry, stupid, or young in decades past, possibly collecting a criminal conviction for their actions, possibly leaving only a photo on Facebook as evidence to be dug up years later, and say to themselves: “Not for me, ta. Best to keep the heid down.” I’d rather we had a better nation than that.