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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

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.