Crime and Punishment: Challenging the Tory narrative

By Adam Peggs

This summer the new Conservative administration has sought to shore up  its reputation as the party of law and order, pledging 20,000 extra police officers, 10,000 new prisons places – in an expansion of mass incarceration – and to extend stop and search powers. Egged on by arguably the most right-wing Home Secretary for a generation, Boris Johnson has unveiled the policies which will likely form a key plank of the Tories’ next manifesto.

This lurch toward a harder position from the government has been made possible not just by the media reaction to levels of violent crime, but by mistakes in Labour’s political strategy. Focussing on police numbers and funding has ultimately given the Conservatives more reason to pursue this rigid, uncompromising strategy, incentivising them to go harder on law and order.

Policing was, after all, always one ‘public service’ loved by Thatcherism, alongside the armed forces, something the left has not always kept in consideration. Thatcherism, while in a sense liberal in its love for markets, competition and acquisitiveness, was always anything but in its attitude toward crime and justice, defence and international relations. The ‘law and order crusade’ was always very much part of Thatcherism’s common sense and no doubt informs the thinking of the generation of Tories inspired by the politics of the 1980s.

Stop and search, now due to be stepped up by the government, disproportionately targets ethnic minorities – with black people in particular 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched. Nor does the evidence suggest it has any more than a negligible impact on reducing violent crime. The evidence on ‘targeted’ or ‘evidence led’ stop and search is much the same, so pivoting toward a reformed stop and search is no answer.

In broader terms, we should note that the same is true for police numbers. Despite what is often claimed, the number of police also has little relationship to rates of violent or other crime. And more and more incarceration, will also not produce outcomes like lower levels of crime. What should be noted is the injustice of calling for greater levels of incarceration in a country where black people are jailed at a rate more disproportionate than even the United States.

There are two key issues with the Labour Party’s current attitude toward stop and search. Firstly, that the evidence based stop and search espoused by the party presents the same set of problems, just with less severity, as the stop and search espoused by the Tories. Second, that Labour’s line of attack on stop and search has too often focussed on language which suggests that more powers for the police is part of the solution. I should clarify that this is not what the Labour Party is calling for in policy terms, but words do matter – and this rhetoric will be counterproductive for the left.

This is a recipe for an arms race on law and order and criminal justice. It has already provided Johnson’s Tory Party with a golden opportunity to shift rightwards on policing, toward a more aggressively social conservative approach to policing. Placing 10,000 more police officers as Labour’s headline policy on crime and justice in 2017, and continuing to prioritise this policy since, has simply given Boris Johnson’s administration more of an opening to adopt these new policies.

Over in the United States, candidates like Bernie Sanders and a number of younger, bolder leftists like Tiffany Caban have given vocal opposition to inequity in the American criminal justice system and have begun to put forward concrete proposals for criminal justice reform. The Labour Party needs it own analogues to this. Anything less would be an unnecessary (and counterproductive) attempt at political moderation, one which will encourage Boris Johnson’s government to act unchecked and would hem a prospective Labour government into an overly cautious programme on justice and policing.

While Labour has talked warmly of ‘community policing’, there are good reasons to not be convinced that this is an adequate approach. Community policing approaches have often been deployed as a ‘complementary strategy’ in conjunction with a harsher, more heavy-handed approach. Paul Gilroy’s work would very much suggest that moving toward community policing strategies as a solution would not be substantially different from the status quo. On this, it is worth considering that much thinking on the community approach is rooted in the analysis provided by ‘Left realist’ criminology, which tend to package right-wing ideas about BAME criminality in left-wing language.

The next Labour manifesto ought to move away from the party’s equivocal approach to stop and search, and from traditional police-based solutions to social problems. This cannot mean just mean an approach which criticises privatisation in the justice system, as if having publicly-run probation and prisons is enough of a solution, but instead should take on a more critical stance. It should loudly pronounce the left’s commitment to civil liberties, to social reform and to repudiating social conservatism. We should be arguing that rather than investing in more and more prison places, as the government is currently, we should invest in a fair society instead.

If the next Labour government is to deliver large-scale and lasting reform, it cannot afford to place certain areas of policy off limits, be they policing, immigration or any other. With even the Guardian’s editorial line, typically to Labour’s right, more loudly challenging the Conservative’s new announcements on policing and prisons, it is time Labour starts to rethink its perspective.