The general election of 1979 drastically changed the place of crime in politics, writes Roger Hopkins Burke.
Thatcher’s promise to be tough on crime is arguably what won that election for the Conservatives. This set a precedent, wherein being seen as soft on crime became politically unappealing. The Labour party eventually responded to this agenda, and Blair’s promise to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” became the rallying cry of the New Labour movement.
The crime section of the new Labour manifesto opens by acknowledging crime as a cause of fear and insecurity. People certainly fear violent crime, but the statistics suggest that it is very much on the decrease, and has been since the mid-1990s.
Much of this has taken place during the New Labour years, and the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that reported violent crime between 1995 and 2014 has fallen from 3.8 million in 1995 to 1.3 million in 2013/14. Over the past five years, reported violent crimes have dropped by 21%, with public disorder offences fallen by 29%. Over the same period, crimes involving weapons have decreased by 34%, and homicides by 28%.
But crime statistics are notoriously inaccurate, particularly during times of huge public sector cutbacks when there aren’t the personnel to discover – let alone detect – crime. Crime surveys, on the other hand, are far more accurate, and these do suggest that violent crime is in decline. Nevertheless, there is some discrepancy with the numbers appearing in A&E departments.
There have been huge cuts in the number of fully fledged front-line police officers during the coalition years with more predicted. But this fails to take into account the large numbers of much cheaper Police Community Support Officers (PCSOS), which were originally introduced by New Labour.
Now, Labour pledges to safeguard more than 10,000 police officers for the next three years, and also to guarantee “neighbourhood policing in every community”. The public does like to see uniformed officers on our streets, but this manifesto is not at all clear whether the intention is to employ proper police officers, or support workers.
Some argue that many offences, such as domestic abuse continue not to be reported or even recognised as a crime by some of the victims. In light of this, and the fact that two women each week are estimated to be killed by a current or former partner, it makes sense to address domestic violence against women and girls.
Women’s refuges and Rape Crisis Centres do sterling work, but their sources of funding have been very fragile during the coalition years. Sexual abuse is a similar area of contention, and certainly the recent “discovery” of widespread grooming gangs is a long-established issue previously not acknowledged. Labour clearly plan a major extension of intervention in such cases.
There is a general theme throughout the manifesto of a return to community-based methods, such as strengthened community safety partnerships, and giving local people a role in setting priorities for neighbourhood policing.
In its manifesto, the Labour party intend to abolish directly elected (and expensive) Police and Crime Commissioners, all of which were returned by very small numbers of electors. It is unlikely that many people will miss their passing, although there is no suggestion as to how they will be replaced.
The manifesto also promises a new Police Standards Authority, to replace the Independent Police Complaints Commission. However, it is not known who exactly will constitute this Police Standards Authority – this will be a crucial determinant of its efficacy.
The imbalance in the ethnic composition of the police force is another issue the Labour manifesto addresses. Whether it is simply racism that stops ethnic minorities from joining the police or a more complex phenomenon, is unknown. But there have been plenty of initiatives to address this imbalance and no serious political party has been opposed to these policies.
Crime prevention is one of the many issues mentioned in passing, but the suggested initiatives have very little to do with preventing crime. There is a focus on restorative justice for perpetrators of anti-social behaviour; but the question of who is going to administer this is not approached.
It is clearly important to protect workers from violence in the workplace, but tougher penalties, as Labour proposes, might not work. There is little detail on many of Labour’s policies as to how, or by whom, these strategies should be implemented. None of this seems to have been costed and the implication would seem to be a growth in staff, which will inevitably be expensive.
The establishment of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales completely revitalised juvenile/youth justice initially at great expense although its budget was significantly reduced over the duration of three governments. Originally planning its abolition, the Coalition Government further reduced its budget and moved it into the Ministry of Justice.
There is a recognition in the Labour manifesto that Youth Offending Teams do an excellent job and the decision to increase its jurisdiction to deal with 18 to 20-year-olds. It is supported by widespread evidence that this age group is more juvenile than adult. And this would be cost-neutral due to the subsequent savings in the adult criminal justice system.
Drug addiction continues to be a major cause of street crime, although it’s not certain why this proposed extension of joined-up services will greatly help. Treatment is undoubtedly the way forward and should be encouraged. The Liberal Democrats go a step further, by suggesting decriminalisation. Yet in the context of the current agenda, improved agency cooperation is probably the best that can be done – but do not expect it to significantly reduce drug addiction.
The issue of “legal highs” is a cyclical process. They are all legal until they are made illegal, and then others take their place. And deciding when it is appropriate for a government to ban the sale and distribution of them is problematic.
Despite the significantly falling crime rates, the prison population is at its biggest in Europe, and in British history. Even though improved facilities and better trained staff will be beneficial, Labour doesn’t provide the details for these pledges.
Roger Hopkins Burke
Principal Lecturer in Criminology
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University
This article originally appeared on The Conversation as part of its ‘Manifesto Check’