Labour must seize the initiative on crime and punishment

Cast your mind back to April 2010. While Gordon Brown’s unorthodox approach to winning friends and influencing people (step forward Gillian Duffy) will live longest in most people’s memories, the beleaguered PM wasn’t the only Labour heavyweight making waves on the campaign trail. John Prescott was also doing the rounds in marginal seats up and down the country. Armed with only a microphone and Labour’s fabled 1997 pledge card, Prescott tried to explain to voters that the party had delivered the brave new world that Tony Blair had promised 13 years earlier. 

A retrospective glance at this ’97 pledge card reveals something astonishing. The second of Labour’s five headline promises was to 'fast track punishment for persistent young offenders'. Blair would achieve this, the card reads, through 'halving the time from arrest to sentencing'. Granted, this sounds like a straight copy-and-paste from just about any Tory manifesto penned after Thatcher smashed the post-war consensus. But what is more interesting is the fact that law and order policy wasn’t just a peripheral issue as it is now, it was at the very heart of Labour’s pitch to the nation.

The 'throw away the key' style pledge featured higher on the list of core promises than proposals on tax, the NHS, and welfare reform. New Labour’s approach then is completely juxtaposed to the policy themes championed by the main parties over the last five to ten years. The 2010 manifestos are cases in point. Brown and co's 'A Future Fair for All' offering didn’t think to mention policing policy in any real detail until page 51. In the same vein, the Tories' 'Invitation to join the Government of Britain' framed crime loosely as a symptom of the 'broken society', but law and order overwhelmingly played second fiddle to reducing public spending and taxation. Similarly, Ed Miliband didn't refer to tackling crime at all in his conference speech in Manchester this year.

The rhetoric of a burgeoning UKIP illustrates the dearth in interest in an issue that was once the most contested of political footballs. ONS stats suggest that pensioners show a greater propensity to fear crime than the rest of the population and are also most likely to support UKIP. So you’d have thought that Farage would seek to cement his place in the hearts of elderly voters by making headline promises to lock up crook forever. Not so, it seems. Indeed this year’s UKIP manifesto for the local and European elections didn’t even make reference in passing to tackling crime. 

Have MPs finally come to their senses and realised that crime cannot be eradicated through retributive punishment alone? I contend not, for Michael Howard’s infamous 'prison works' adage is still alive and kicking under the surface. None of the main parties have offered much to counter the overwhelmingly authoritarian approach to law and order that is the current consensus. Aside from the Greens, no Westminster party is at all bullish in their defence of civil liberties. This doesn’t mean nothing has changed since the ’97 pledge card, however. Rather, the parties talk less about tackling crime purely for reasons of political utility.

The 2008 financial crisis made Westminster re-assess its priorities. When job losses and home repossessions are widespread, MPs are unlikely to garner much political capital by prioritising crime reduction and community safety. Even in the context of an economy on the up, the squeeze on wages and living standards means crime remains a second-order issue for politicians and voters. 

Other factors are at play here too. New Labour's post 9/11 hysteria over the 'axis of evil' plotting against the UK arguably pushed domestic crime issues further down the pecking order. The threat to law and order posed by run-of-the-mill criminals, however unpleasant, seemed small fry compared to the alleged impending assault promised by Islamic extremists. After 9/11, it became politically expedient to focus on international foreign policy, not domestic law and order strategy. 

But above all, crime and punishment issues command fewer column inches than they did 15 years ago because, mercifully, Britain is a less violent place than it once was. According to stats released in 2013 by the Institute for Economics and Peace, in the past five years violent crime has reduced by more than a fifth. Weapons crime has dropped by 34%, with total homicides having fallen by almost 30%. Perhaps most tellingly, the 2012 Global Peace Index ranked the UK 29th out of 158 nations. In 2007 Britain came in at 48th. 

Such a massive reduction in criminal behaviour presents a real opportunity for Yvette Cooper and Sadiq Khan next year. With voters less at risk from violent crime than a decade ago, the Shadow Cabinet top brass has more room for manoeuvre in remoulding Labour's approach to law and order. Where voters once lapped up neoliberal authoritarianism in the shape of draconian sentencing and racist stop and search policies, polling stats suggest there is real appetite for a renewed focus on upholding civil liberties. A YouGov Human Rights poll commissioned during this Parliament revealed 93% of voters support legislation enshrining rights and freedoms.

Content to focus on developing narratives on tax, energy, and the NHS, Labour has thus far not said much on policing and justice. The party's strategy has to go further than merely promising to scrap Police and Crime Commissioners. Instead, the 2015 manifesto must offer voters a radical alternative to the neoliberal zeitgeist on crime and punishment. 

The manifesto should promise a civil liberties renaissance anchored in three key policies. First, police stop and search powers should be massively curtailed to tackle the endemic targeting of ethnic minority groups. Second, cuts to legal aid must be reversed to ensure the right to counsel isn't reserved solely for the wealthy. And finally, steps should be taken to remedy the national disgrace that is extended pre-charge detention. 

While law and order isn't the political game-changer it once was, Labour must still seize the initiative on crime and punishment as Britain prepares to go to the polls next year.

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