Our magistrates' courts are being decimated by cuts. The Tories should be ashamed of themselves

There’s a horrible irony about a justice system that is supposed to make us safer leaving us more vu

“Can we go in there?" mumbles Chris, nodding towards a pokey private office. The 15-year-old speaks through an overcoat zipped up past his mouth. His eyes are puffy but alert, darting around the exposed waiting area in Willesden magistrates court. It’s choked and tense with people waiting for their cases to be called. Since this court has been merged in the cuts, it’s been heaving with young people from territories like Church Road, Stonebridge and Hendon. Rival gangs are afraid of being seen out of place. The threat of violence is real.

“I’m from Neasden but I obviously don’t come around here normally”, says Chris once the door is shut, “Anything could happen. People can make a phone call and get people down. I say I’m with my mum, I’m not going to fright you, but you get questions. I was outside (court) once and a group of guys got out of a cab and chased me down the street.”

Magistrates' courts don’t deal with high profile cases, but they matter. In fact they make judgements on 95 per cent of all criminal cases. Below national media attention, they focus on hearing and serving justice locally. They confront the dark underbelly of our communities, dealing with antisocial behaviour, gang crime, vandalism. Most distinctively, these judgements are made entirely by volunteers. The magistrates passing sentences are ordinary people from local communities taking responsibility. They learn as well as contribute. It’s a fantastic system, and now it’s being decimated.

Some 103 of our country’s 330 magistrates courts are now closing as a result of cuts. Many controversial closures like those in Woking and Harlow have already been boarded up. Barry court took the Ministry of Justice to judicial review, but they were over ridden. Surviving courts are now squeezing in the back log. The consequence is a tense and heaving system that is clogged and failing to deliver. The cost of rearranging cases is soaring. Bureaucracy is increasing. Witnesses are not turning up. Kids are taking more days off school. Justice is suffering.

Last week I wrote that the left needed to develop a narrative on what it wanted to preserve as well as change. Fighting to safeguard such important institutions - woven into the fabric of our history and local communities - is exactly what I’m talking about. Yes, municipal courts are in need of reform, but many are working. The appeal rate is a tiny 2 per cent. Their decisions are respected because they are owned. Compare that to the European Court, which we are prepared to defend despite people’s lack of loyalty to it, and the difference is striking. When it comes to protecting civil society, there is a consistent case for Labour to be conservative, and people need our help.

Michael Situ is the young legal advocate for Chris. Walking into court he’s besieged before he can start a day that will already finish late. A man in a blue hoodie is almost in tears because no one has turned up to represent him and he’s about to stand alone. Michael wants to help, but with cuts to legal aid on top of the extra cases from closed courts, it’s hard for his firm to even tread water. It’s not unusual for Michael to be advocating for six or seven people a day.

“You often find you’ve double booked yourself and you have something in two courts at once, so you’re just left praying one will finish early”, he says. “In the last month we’ve had six or seven trials that have been vacated because there’s just no space for them, and sometimes defendants are left without lawyers. It’s justice that suffers.”

Such decimation is a damning indictment on the Conservatives. With so much work being done by volunteers, our local justice system was an example of the Big Society at work, as the Magistrates Association points out. Its present woes are a particular indictment on Cameron, who is criticised by his own backbenchers for failing to know what’s worth protecting. Since HMCTS was faced with 25 per cent cuts, he’s been presiding over shortsighted savings that will come at great institutional cost in the long term.

“It’s already taking longer for some cases to come to court,” says John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates Association whose home town of Slough has gone from three courts to none, “Anecdotally we hear magistrates are issuing more warrants because people are less likely to turn up if they have to travel twenty or thirty miles for a trial… There’s also an obvious security issue, particularly in London.”

There’s a horrible irony about a justice system that is supposed to make us safer leaving us more vulnerable. Chris’s mum is on benefits, but pays for taxis to go through areas she knows are dangerous for her son rather than risking public transport. She loses time looking for work and her son misses time off school to be ignored for hours in a crowded courtroom. At home her eleven-year-old daughter and two other children are alone. If they are getting into trouble, criminal or otherwise, she wouldn’t know about it.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

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Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide