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The police take the hit

Politicians once agreed that policing was not a matter for party advantage. The scandal of recent we

Tony Blair and Jack Straw have a lot to answer for. The job of commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, previously described as perhaps the most difficult in Britain, seems to have become impossible. No Met commissioner had resigned since the 1880s; now two have stepped down in less than two and a half years. Something is seriously wrong.

In the extraordinary events of the past few weeks, the police are undoubtedly emerging as losers. One side in a triangle with politicians and the press, the police have proved unequal in size and influence, and unable to deal with the angles emerging. Amid all the debate about corruption and relationships between police, politicians and journalists, the question that matters most concerns the political oversight of the police. Yet, so far, the coalition government has failed to recognise that its plans to change the arrangements for this oversight have been shown by recent events to be catastrophically wrong.

That the police will lose is inevitable. As Mark Twain said, it is unwise to quarrel with anyone who orders ink by the barrel. But a leader in the Times following Sir Paul Stephenson's resignation on 17 July, and the Murdoch empire's attempt more generally to lay the blame elsewhere, should not go unchallenged.

“Unless a huge amount of what has been alleged these past two weeks is sheer fiction," ran the Times leader, "Britain's police are riven with corruption on an institutional scale. Journalists who bribe policemen are indicative of a flawed industry. Policemen who can be bribed are indicative of a flawed state." The responses to which are: no, the British police are not riven with corruption; yes, journalists who offer bribes are flawed; and yes, a police force whose officers routinely take bribes is indicative of a flawed state - but that isn't the case in Britain.

In 1993, the then commissioner, Paul Condon, described the Met as "the cleanest big-city force in the world". However, he was also among the first in the world to reject the theory that the odd bad apple was infecting the barrel, and to recognise that corruption in the police was not an occasional threat, but a permanent one. Organised crime will always seek to corrupt police officers, a few of whom will fall prey to the temptation. Paul Condon set up the Met's first dedicated anti-corruption unit, different from the complaints units common to all forces. This has been maintained by all his successors, to each of whom, including Sir Paul Stephenson, this unit has reported directly when each was deputy commissioner.

All my senior colleagues and I have been determined to destroy corruption wherever it is found. This is no amateur operation, but one which uses all the techniques that are available to the police to counter organised crime and terrorism against officers who are corrupt and those who would corrupt them. It is realistic rather than complacent to admit that there will always be a very small number of corrupt staff in the Met, but the kind of wide-scale corruption alleged by the Times is simply not true.

On his appointment as commissioner in 1972, Robert Mark remarked that "the basic test of a decent police force is to catch more criminals than it employs, and the Met is failing the test". There is no intelligence - and huge efforts are made to find it - of the kind of networked corruption that Robert Mark cleared out in the 1970s, or of the kind that blighted New York and Sydney in the same period. There are corrupt individual officers, and they get arrested and prosecuted.

The most difficult form of corruption to wipe out will always involve relationships with journalists. How many leak inquiries are ever successful? How many journalists have ever revealed their sources? And yet the News of the World scandal, while uncovering phone-hacking on a vast scale, so far suggests that up to five junior police officers out of the Met's 52,000 staff (and those five may or may not still be serving) may have taken cash from the paper. When they are caught, they will rightly be jailed, just as the journalists who paid or authorised the payments should be. On the matter of corruption, then, keep calm and carry on. British policing is largely clean.

The real problem is the relationship between politics and the police. There can be no question that policing is political. What could be more political than a principal state organisation that is empowered and entrusted to use force on free citizens? However, the great strength of the British policing settlement was that politicians did not interfere for party advantage. That era has now passed, and we should mourn it.

In the 1980s, there was much public concern over a higher-than-normal number of neonatal deaths at Birmingham Children's Hospital. In an acrimonious debate in the House of Commons, the then health secretary was forced to defend his position after being accused of not doing enough to address the problem. A short while later, West Midlands Police accidentally shot a toddler dead during an armed raid. In contrast to the health case, there was no political disagreement over the position adopted by the then home secretary: that this was an operational matter for the local chief constable - a very serious matter indeed, but not one for party politics. The same position would have been adopted by almost all police committees, as police authorities were then called: whatever the persuasion of the majority party on the committees, there was a consensus that party politics should be left at the door of the meeting when it came to policing.

Enter Tony Blair. It was as shadow home secretary in 1993 that he pledged to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". Speaking in the aftermath of the murder of the toddler James Bulger, Blair wanted to steal policing as an issue from the Conservatives. (The Tories believed that policing, like defence, was their natural possession.)

Tough on crime

What followed was a bidding war over toughness between Blair and the home secretary Michael Howard. The part about being "tough on the causes of crime" was lost as antisocial behaviour and violent crime, and how draconian you could be in dealing with them, moved centre stage in British politics for the first time. And there they have stayed ever since. Behind the politicians came the right-wing press, highlighting gruesome crimes, urging "Sarah's law", demonising the hoodie as a successor to the hooligans of the past. No one outdid the red-top end of the Murdoch empire.

By 2007, a MORI poll found that crime was "a bigger source of concern for Britons than the citizens of any equivalent western European nation and even the United States". And yet, on almost any measure, crime had been falling since 1993. Levels of violent crime in England and Wales are very similar to those in other major European countries.

On coming to power in 1997, Blair made Jack Straw home secretary. In 2000, Straw created the role of London mayor as well as the Metropolitan Police Authority. His motives were admirable. Up to that point, the Met's police authority functions had been carried out by the Home Office and that needed to change. However, the politics of London have always been more raw than elsewhere.

The Metropolitan Police Authority was filled with seasoned London politicians who competed for airspace with a master publicist in the then mayor, Ken Livingstone. The most politically important of the mayor's functions was policing, and the only function of the authority was policing, and their meetings were always held in public. After the bombings in London on 7 July 2005, those meetings were broadcast live by a number of national television channels.

Then, in 2008, the law changed so that the mayor was given power either to chair the police authority or to appoint the chair. Already the commissioner answered to the home secretary and, through him or her, to the PM, and to the chair of the police authority: now the mayor was his boss as well. Thus the job of the Met commissioner to lead the policing of London, and to lead his force, became increasingly obstructed by the need to deal with very senior politicians and very serious politics.

Meanwhile, the attitude of the press changed. The days of crime correspondents ended and home affairs editors came to the fore; the press ceased to see the Met as the separate entity it is, treating it as part of Whitehall instead. And the commissioner, whether he wished it or not, began to be treated as a cross between a cabinet minister and a permanent secretary. It is telling, for example, that it was the BBC's chief political correspondent to whom Radio 4 turned when Sir Paul Stephenson resigned. The Met has a very large, reactive press operation, but it does not have the proactive, protective press abilities of a department of state.

I used the press, but rarely socialised with it. This, and some views deemed unsuitable by the red tops, made me the target of very hostile press coverage for most of my tenure at the Met. When Sir Paul Stephenson succeeded me in 2008, he was determined not to be so public. He did not want to be the story, and so one of his strategies as commissioner seems to have been to cultivate the media privately. He is now castigated for that.

Lord Justice Leveson will lead the inquiry into the relationship between the media and the Met, but it seems very likely that he will find that this relationship is only a reflection of the relationship between the media and senior politicians. If so, then it is to the relationship between politics and the Met that attention must be turned. Dealings between the media and the police will follow that. The existing arrangements for the political oversight and governance of the Met have rendered the job of the commissioner apparently undoable and they need to be changed.

The weakest link

Change is about to happen through the proposed abolition of the Metropolitan Police Authority. Unfortunately, policing will be changed for the worse and, even more unfortunately, that change will stretch far beyond the story that is still unfolding in London.

When the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill becomes law next year (as it will, despite attempts by the House of Lords to block it), the Met will be in the hands of two politicians: the Mayor of London and his deputy for policing - a mayor, Boris Johnson, who has already forced the resignation of two commissioners. And the government is determined to replicate the London police system across the country, making every chief constable subject to a similarly capricious oversight by just one elected politician. This is a system modelled on policing in the US - a system that one senior officer there recently described as "the weakest link" in American policing.

In the debate in the Lords that followed Sir Paul Stephenson's resignation, Paul Condon said that this had been perhaps the saddest day in the long history of the Met. He was right. When these events are analysed, in a more dispassionate future, it will be seen that there was no specific reason why Sir Paul Stephenson resigned, other than the overriding one that he could not survive the media firestorm in the absence of political support. This may have been offered to him privately, but was not forthcoming in public because of politicians' own need for survival.

What the police need is a royal commission to sort out what they are for and how they should be governed in the 21st century. Instead, they are going to get elected police commissioners imposed on them. For the police, this isn't a case of Murphy's law. It is a case of O'Leary's law, which says that Murphy is an optimist.

Lord Blair of Boughton was commissioner of the Metropolitan Police from 2005-2008. He was made a cross-bench life peer in 2010

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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