In more normal times, a government presiding over a 166 per cent increase in serious violence, a halving in the rate with which offenders are being charged, and record delays in the length of court cases would be vulnerable on law-and-order issues. It speaks volumes about the present state of politics that, if anything, crime and policing is perceived as a source of strength for the Conservatives, and similarly that it is a weakness for Labour. Understanding how this has come to pass is key to the question of how Labour digs itself out of the hole it has found itself in.
When it comes to law-and-order, Labour has got three major problems that need to be addressed. Firstly, its analysis of the central issue at stake has too often appeared out of step with voters. In recent years, Labour has acted and sounded as if its main priority for government is how to constrain the police from overreach. Whether on ‘Prevent’ (the government’s counter-radicalisation programme), the use of stop and search, or the policing of protests, Labour politicians often appear most comfortable when talking about how they will act to prevent abuses of police power. Clearly, ensuring there is proper accountability is important, as is the need to ensure particular communities are not disproportionately affected by intrusive police tactics. However, if one were to ask the public what their foremost priority for government was on law-and-order – including the communities deemed most likely to feel ‘over-policed’ - the vast majority would say it was to ensure that violence is reduced and that offenders are brought to book. The public aren’t blind to the need to hold policing accountable for wrongdoing. Its just that it comes a very clear second to the desire for an effective (and well resourced) criminal justice system. This is especially true of those living in the most deprived communities, since they are most likely to suffer from the effects of crime.
A second, related, problem is that Labour has lacked any kind of policy offer on crime and justice, beyond a generic commitment to spend more on police officers. This vacuum has left Labour exposed both tactically and strategically.
An important objective for any opposition is to be able to react to high profile events in ways that both resonate with the public mood, while reinforcing the broader narrative you want voters to buy into. When it comes to crime and policing, there have been no shortage of opportunities for Labour to pin failures on the government, from the rising tide of youth homicide in London to the series of high-profile failures in managing dangerous offenders. However, Labour’s ability to criticise government policy has been hamstrung by its inability to say what they would do differently. Probably the most vocal the party has been over the last two years was in the immediate aftermath of the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common in March, when several back-bench MPs lined up to criticise the Met Police for being overly heavy-handed (indeed some even called for the resignation of the Met’s Commissioner, Cressida Dick). No doubt those MPs believed they were speaking to an important constituency, but it was a constituency very much in the minority. Polling conducted in the week following the vigil found that a majority of the public (53 per cent) backed the police’s handling of the event (compared to 32% who thought they got it wrong) and were more likely to blame protesters than officers for what occurred. A subsequent report by the independent police inspectorate concluded that, on the whole, the police acted ‘appropriately’, doing their best to peacefully disperse the crowd. The Inspector who led the review took the unusual step of criticising those who condemned the Met’s actions ‘within mere hours of the vigil’ without having all the information to hand. A more worked through policy position would have enabled Labour to frame its response as part of a broader, more balanced approach to police reform. Instead they simply ended up looking opportunist.
The lack of serious policy thinking is not only a tactical problem. It has also exposed Labour’s position as strategically weak. For example, by focusing solely on the issue of ‘police cuts’ to the exclusion of all else, Labour has been left with nowhere to go now that Boris Johnson has effectively removed this dividing line from the equation, following his pledge to recruit an additional 20,000 officers at the last general election.
Thirdly, in crafting its position on law-and-order, Labour is failing to draw on arguably its most important source of insight: police and crime commissioners. Despite heavy losses in the recent local elections, Labour PCCs and Mayors (who act as de facto PCCs in their areas) still oversee a significant proportion of the policing budget within England and Wales, including most of the major urban conurbations. Their record isn’t perfect – indeed some have presided over a worsening of crime outcomes – but at the very least they offer first-hand knowledge of the trade-offs involved in attempting to improve performance within policing and across the criminal justice system. At their best, they have shown an ability to drive local innovation, whether it be schemes piloted to divert drug-addicted offenders out of the criminal justice system, efforts to work with schools in tackling the causes of violence, or interventions to target perpetrators of domestic abuse. As Stephen Bush has previously argued, it is crazy that successive Labour leaders have shown such little interest in the work of PCCs, given the levers they hold.
In order to turn its current weakness into a source of strength, Labour has to address each of these problems head on. First, signaling that it will prioritise reforms to improve the police’s ability to catch criminals and cut crime. The Labour front-bench needs to sound as outraged about low conviction rates as it does about examples of police overreach. That is likely to feel uncomfortable for some on the left, who regard greater use of powers, such as stop and search, as inherently illiberal and discriminatory. But the reality is that unless Labour shows it is serious about keeping the public safe, the public won’t trust them.
Second, Labour has to start fleshing out a serious and comprehensive policy offer on crime and justice. Tackling the drivers of violence, a proper functioning courts system, and an agenda to sort out the mess of prisons won’t necessarily be on a pledge card, but are a vital prerequisite for getting a hearing from the public again on crime, making the Party less prone to being buffeted by events and boxed into unpopular positions. In doing so, they can draw on the experience of Labour PCCs and Mayors, who have been grappling with these issues at a local level.
These tasks are important not just because they are electorally important, but because they will disproportionately benefit the most vulnerable communities and thus ought to be a central component of any progressive party’s political prospectus for governing.