The slow strangulation of political debate in Britain continued apace yesterday with the depressingly tiresome ‘debate’ over Ken Clarke’s comments in a radio interview. Victoria Derbyshire’s hectoring of the Justice Minister and the furore that then engulfed a spluttering, garbled explanation of a nonetheless valid idea may just have sounded the death knell of decent triangulated policy discussion between politicians, the media and the public.

This isn’t even about the issues any more, the game (for there is no other word for it) that politicians must play now involves the following rules – ‘you shall be pressed, prodded and probed 24/7, good ideas will be largely ignored, and if you step outside the parameters of what we consider to be appropriate, even for one moment and as a result of an innocently garbled explanation, we will seek to destroy you’. Twitter is the main culprit of course, that rolling, trolling vessel of visceral huffiness was in full swing yesterday, and depressingly so.

There is a group out there who want, perfectly understandably, for rape, all rape regardless of circumstance or supposed mitigation, to carry a heavy sentence. Ken Clarke is arguing that, to free up prison space and court time, some lesser crimes can carry a shorter sentence if a guilty plea is offered, and some rape cases may fall within that range. It’s a great opening for a great debate and, amidst the outrage, I have read some interesting, thought-provoking pieces on either side of the argument. 

I can’t say this is an area that I have much prior knowledge of but I have to say that I lean towards Ken Clarke’s approach to the problem. It’s all very well holding out for the strictest of punishments for those who commit rape but with lamentable conviction rates of 4%-6%, that doesn’t seem to be working so well. A clearly distressed rape victim was also on the same Radio Five Live show that Ken took part in and her point was that her attacker was released too early and allowed to commit a similar crime. A harrowing account and it is difficult to argue against but a shorter sentence being better than no sentence is a valid, if not necessarily always convincing, argument the other way.

As for the comments that Clarke made and the rebuttal that all rapes are as serious as each other, that is surely not the case when any crime has a sliding scale of seriousness that can be applied and requires a judge and jury to make sense of, not to mention a sliding scale of punishments that can be given out. Highly emotive the subject matter may be but the country, and the media in particular, needs to find a way for our political leaders to discuss issues without facing directionless outrage and knee-jerk calls to resign. Again I lament the garbage, the noise that Twitter fuels itself with day in and day out. Some say politics doesn’t ‘get’ the Internet; I simply say the Internet is often too immature for politics. 

That’s not to say that politicians are entirely blameless. Ed Miliband is probably thinking that he had a good day yesterday because he managed to request that a Cabinet Minister resign at PMQs. Frankly the Labour leader should be ashamed of the cynical opportunism that he has displayed and the race to the bottom that he is partaking in. 

During the Labour leadership contest, Ed stated that “when Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high re-offending rates, I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime”. Where was that open-mindedness and willingness to be constructive yesterday when the news cameras were rolling and cheap soundbites were on the table? I’m a voter up for grabs but I was failed to be inspired by Iain Gray in opposition and I remain uninspired by Ed Miliband’s alternative to the coalition so far. Labour needs to learn that attacking the Government of the day is only one side of the coin, they need to promote what their alternative argument is or else voters like myself will assume there isn’t one.

So how does this come about? Well, the best that I can come up with is that some people just enjoy being outraged. If someone claims to be angry while still believing that Clarke considers all rape to be a serious crime then I don’t know how that can be reconciled. Either that or some people have a pre-conceived notion of who and what a Conservative is and they will take any opportunity to cement that view. People may say ‘but we didn’t put words in Clarke’s mouth’ but what did he say? That date rape and sex with someone underage are different to forced, violent attacks against the person’s will? Well, they are different, hence their having different definitions and different words required to describe them. Should that difference be reflected and recognised the courts? Is a date rape attacker less likely to commit the crime again after a few years in prison compared to a more physically violent attacker? Obviously I don’t know but that’s part of the necessary debate that should be taking place but many, Ed Miliband included, are ducking it because they’d rather just paint Clarke as a bogeyman.

For me, this is a different situation to a similar furore surrounding former Conservative MSP Bill Aitken earlier this year, the difference being that that situation seemed to involve a suggestion of what women were doing in a certain area anyway giving the impression that they were partly at fault for what happened to them whereas today’s debate is strictly surrounding what sentences should be handed out for which crimes. Bill certainly had to resign, Ken absolutely does not.

If anyone outside the coalition believes that the extension of plea bargains is a bad idea then argue it, if they believe we should pay for more prisons argue for it, if they believe rape (under any circumstances) is so serious a crime that it should carry significant jail sentences they should argue for it but if you sit back with no contributing ideas of your own and only choose to get involved when someone is perceived as having slipped up, then shame on you I’m afraid.

The bottom line is, at around 5%, conviction rates for rape cases are abysmal and I for one don’t believe that 95% of people who bring charges (predominantly women) are just making stuff up. The Conservatives first contribution to the area was to suggest men accused of rape should be anonymous which is a spectacular missed opportunity at fixing the main, substantial problem. That surely has to remain the focus of this issue if the scourge of rape and sexual assault, so long a taboo subject, is to be improved upon. 

Ken Clarke, albeit indirectly, is showing real grit and leadership by getting closer to the nub of the issue and is taking his argument to the public via the airwaves. Even if his plans are misguided, he deserves a coherent argument the other way at least, not his head in a vice and calls for resignation.