Imitating the politics of Priti Patel will get us nowhere

By Adam Peggs

Jake Richards’ piece in Labourlist last week argues that Labour should be ‘the party of law and order’ as a response to the Conservatives’ reliance on law and order politics and arguing for ‘pride’ in New Labour’s record in this area. Embarking on a ‘law and order crusade’, as Stuart Hall once described it, is no way forward.

Richards notes that ‘even if they were able to deliver their police recruitment target, this would see numbers at the same levels as on the day David Cameron took office in 2010.’ But policing numbers and expenditure on police were at record levels when New Labour left office (as Richards notes later). Being beneath the high watermark of spending levels does not indicate low levels of police spending, much less “underfunding”, and it’s an error to think so.

The evidence that higher police numbers deters violent crime is scant and while England and Wales currently spends a good deal on policing by international standards (the second largest per capita in Europe), it is just as telling how little the country spends on youth centres, mental healthcare, education and other social infrastructure. This is not to mention the troubling steps toward greater militarisation of the police force.

Stuart Hall, in his seminal essay The Great Moving Right Show, analyses the rise of Thatcherism and places policing and crime as one of its central themes. He argues this politics has been used to ‘scare people over’ to the right’s cause and that by exacerbating fears over ‘loss of scarce property’ and ‘attack in working class areas’ it ‘welds people’ to a narrative in which those in authority rescue law-abiding working class people from fear of crime. Several years earlier in Policing the Crisis Hall and his co-authors explained how a panic in the 1970s about mugging, which turned out to be groundless, had been driven by racialised imagery and scaremongering. There are clear parallels with contemporary narratives around youth violence, cities and race, which in turn (like during the rise of Thatcherism) have fuelled demands for harsher policing.

Here, Richards criticises Priti Patel for not living up to her promises of a more authoritarian approach to policing, quoting Patel at the 2019 Conservative Party conference saying, ‘to the criminals, I simply say this: we are coming for you‘ and suggesting Patel is not living up to her words. But copying the hardline politics of Priti Patel will get us nowhere worth going and competing with the Conservatives on who can be harsher is a lose-lose game. With the Conservatives currently pushing for more police stationed in schools, the introduction of more dangerous tasers, ramping up stop and search and harsher sentences, this would be a worrying road to go down.

Richards talks about ‘a strategy that emboldens the police and criminal justice system’, seemingly a suggestion that the country’s approach to policing and criminal justice are not tough enough. The implication here is significant, Britain has a long and ongoing history of heavy-handed policing tactics and the country has among the highest levels of incarceration in this part of the world.

He goes on to talk about Labour’s ‘considerable investment’ in criminal justice in the Blair-Brown period. It was this period in which the prison population nearly doubled – and in which Black people, Asian people and other ethnic minorities particularly bore the worst of the brunt of the government’s law and order policies. This sort of nostalgia is seriously misguided.

Towards the end, Richards talks more about the last Labour government’s record: praising three areas: record levels of police, having the highest level of spending on criminal justice in the OECD, and then record levels of drug users receiving treatment. Yet the first two of these points are troubling. Being a world leader in investing in police patrols and jail cells should not be a mark of pride in our society.

This is an area in which the party has a history of making significant mistakes. Last year I argued it was an error for frontbenchers to advocate for increased police powers. Recent events, including a reluctance to criticise police racism and police brutality and rhetoric from the party about the need for ‘criminals to fear the police again’ do not bode well.

A serious assessment of New Labour’s record on policing, incarceration and the justice system would likely find that New Labour’s overriding focus became being tough on crime rather than getting to the root of social issues. It was, after all, Tony Blair who argued in 2007 that the cause of knife crime was Black culture.

In this area you can side with the achievements of the Blair-Brown era on law and order, or you can side with those communities that have faced the consequences of racial profiling, mass incarceration, stop and search and the drugs war. I have little faith that there is room to do both.

Image:  Police officers in Glasgow GreenGlasgowScotland. Source:  User:Postdlf, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.