Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University and Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University
As the country teeters on the brink of the chaos of an impending no-deal Brexit, Boris Johnson’s administration has entered electioneering mode. The administration is following a familiar path that has a history of at least 40 years in the Tory party: first, that attitudes and actions towards the EU are not at all about any ‘national’ interest but are about party interests and, specifically, keeping a Tory Government in power at all and any costs; and, second, invoking a tough on crime, law and order discourse to capitalise on popular anxieties to offer false certainties around security and a sense of protection.
On the latter – the subject of this short piece – virtually the first act of the incoming Prime Minister Johnson was to announce the recruitment of 20,000 police officers in order “to make our streets safer”. This was followed by a concerted set of announcements by the Prime Minister and his capital-punishment flirting Home Secretary Priti Patel; their Government would, they trumpeted, “shift the balance of fear” and fill criminals with terror, as they announced alongside the increase in police numbers a ramping up in sentences, stopping early release, and extending the right to stop and search – no doubt, Johnson added, prompting the “Left-wing criminologists” to “howl”. Priti Patel used the Sun on Sunday, the newspaper that emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of the crime-ridden News of The World, to cynically exploit the “attack on brave police officer Stuart Outten” which had taken place in London days earlier, an attack which she claimed “was a reminder that the police put their lives on the line to keep us safe”. Clearly, police officers are injured and killed during the course of their work, as the most recent death of PC Andrew Harper has shown, and their victimisation should not be denied. However, Patel’s comments somewhat obscure the fact that, compared with other occupations, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Deaths in these other occupations deserve to be treated with the same respect and consideration when lives are lost and families are irreparably damaged.
These are well-trodden, and therefore highly cynically chosen, paths. In 1979, the Thatcher government’s first major policy initiative was to implement the Edmund-Davies pay review leading to a spike in police numbers. The result? A spike in the recorded crime rate. Home Office research concluded at the time that ‘whatever the benefits in terms of public reassurance or confidence, increasing visible police presence through extra foot or car patrols is by itself unlikely to reduce crime; nor does there seem much scope for a general improvement in detection rates’. Sir Robert Mark, the Met’s Commissioner, noted that police numbers had little effect on crime rates and ‘seen objectively against the background and problems of 50 million people it [crime] is not even amongst the more serious of our difficulties’. The idea that the present government’s prison building programme and tougher sentencing will reduce victimisation and increase public protection is also a fallacy. In 1983, Leon Brittan instigated the biggest prison building programme of the twentieth century, alongside a tougher sentencing regime. It failed. In 1995, Michael Howard declared that ‘prison works’. He was wrong. There are no demonstrable relationships between prison numbers and recorded crime rates.
Cutting Social Support
By contrast, and to take the example of the offence category exploited by Priti Patel as she lauded the bravery of the police, knife crime may be a significant social problem but neither it, nor the conventional crime problem in general, will be solved by the blitzkrieg of criminalisation, punishment and pain rolled out in recent weeks. It is widely accepted that funding for early intervention services can prevent the numbers of young people finding themselves at risk of victimisation and offending. However, as Action for Children, the Children’s Society and National Children’s Bureau recently revealed, “between 2010-11 and 2015-16, spending on early intervention fell in real terms by 40%”, while Sure Start centres had their budgets halved in the 8 years to 2016. Meanwhile, Tim Bateman has highlighted “a massive contraction in youth service provision, leading to a sharp decline in the availability of constructive activities for young people, resulting in many of them spending more time on the street where risks may be higher”. Johnson and Patel have said nothing about reversing any of these spending cuts.
Crimes of the Rich and Powerful
Nor will the blitz on crime deal with rampant state-corporate criminality. It will not address income tax avoidance and evasion, which even on the Government’s own “laughable” estimate now stands at a record £35 billion per annum, nor the 36,000 deaths each year which the Government links to air pollution in the UK in its recently revised downwards estimate, nor the 50,000 work related deaths which occur year in, year in out in one of the wealthiest economies in the world. The cultures of immunity and impunity which allows the rich and powerful to engage in routine criminal activity will continue to be encouraged: programmes of deregulation and non-enforcement of law against businesses have been institutionalised since 2010 to the point where, for example, there are no officers to enforce law in some local authority areas, where some regulation has been privatised, and where prosecution in some areas are now non-existent. The changes will do little, if anything, to reduce the rampant levels of domestic and sexual violence against women, nor far-right extremism and racist attacks, nor homophobic violence, nor will they introduce desperately needed structures of democratic accountability into the criminal justice system.
What they will do, if these policy turns really do end up meeting the stated aim of putting 10,000 more people in prison, is exacerbate the dramatic levels of violence in British prisons. Therein, as the charity INQUEST recently noted on the basis of the Ministry of Justice’s own data, the 12 months to July 2019 showed: 86 self-inflicted deaths, up 6% from 81 in the previous year – that is, one every four days – of 309 deaths in prison in total. This is not to mention, in a 12 month period, that self-harm levels had “increased by 24% from the previous year, once again reaching record highs … In the child and youth prison estate, there was a 30% increase in self-harm incidents.”
Labour’s Political Opportunism
And what has the Labour Party had to say about this law and order noise, and the grim threat it poses to the already-restricted rights and liberties of those powerless communities and groups it purports to represent? Not surprisingly, the answer is very little. Labour’s response has been based on political opportunism. And so while Diane Abbott has pointed to some of the problems in the “Draconian approach” to the use of stop and search, Labour has failed to seriously contest the government’s announcements. There has been no informed critique of the prison building programme or of tougher sentencing or of the increase in police numbers. There has been no obvious strategy to curtail the brutal exercise of state power and to hold to account those state servants who routinely abuse this power through the capricious discretion they have on the streets and behind prison walls. In fact, Labour’s policy has been to restore police numbers to their pre-cuts level, ignoring the criminological research which, as noted above, shows the negligible impact the police have on conventional crime. What the party has demanded is an inquiry into the welfare and morale of police officers despite the fact that, compared with other jobs, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Again, as noted above, the systemic lack of health and safety is a key factor in the shameful levels of self-harm and deaths in custody. On this, there is silence. Labour has allowed the government to articulate, effectively unchallenged, its toxic, punitive agenda. Such timidity should not be surprising; Labour has an abysmal track record on law and order when in government, reproducing the Tories’ relentless focus on working class crime and turning a blind eye to the systemic abuses of the state and the institutionalised criminality of the rich and powerful.
In the world-view of Johnson and his media and political acolytes, ramping up the crime, law and order rhetoric is vote-winner, a distraction from the Tories’ disastrous handling of Brexit, and the tooling-up of the state for post-Brexit disorder. In general terms, the Johnson government’s strategy can be understood as consolidating still further, in Stuart Hall’s words, the ‘[p]hilisitne barbarism’ begun under the first Thatcher government. It is an ideological strategy, a form of ‘regressive modernisation’, designed to ‘”educate” and discipline the society into a particularly regressive form of modernity, by paradoxically, dragging it backwards through an equally regressive version of the past‘. This regression will have dire consequences for communities and groups already stricken by the pitiless social and economic policies pursued in the last decade, and indeed, before. In 1972, the great American writer James Baldwin pointed out that ‘ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have’. Fifty years on, Baldwin’s eloquent statement provides a fitting testimony to the cynicism, hypocrisy and naked self-interest inexorably driving the government’s law and order bandwagon. Inevitably, this will be followed by the ruthless rolling out of state power in order to maximise and maintain the corrosively exploitative, immoral and amoral neoliberal social order. However, for all its material and ideological power, it is contradictory and, just like the Prime Minister and his government, remains open to contestation and resistance. In these bleakest of times, it is important to remember and reflect on this point.
Part of the title of this article is from the title of the track by The Clash, ‘Clampdown’, on their 1979 London Calling album.