Expect Labour to find one old weapon

Crime is what the political and media classes talk about when they have nothing else to say. It is what they fall back on; their weapon of last resort. "We are going to ensure that law and order is debated in the House of Commons every day in the six months before the election," a prime ministerial adviser told the Independent recently. The signs are that he has been as good as his word.

In a string of by-elections, Labour has sought to fight off the Liberal Democrats by emphasising its own toughness. The Lib Dems are the bleeding-heart friends of junkies and child-killers, Labour's propaganda has implied. New Labour, by contrast, is led by hard men and women ready to act on the people's demand that thugs and yobs be cleared from the streets (or "our streets", as we are now obliged to call them).

As a distraction from the Iraq debacle, the law-and-order ticket failed to work in Brent East, though it might have helped Labour hold Birmingham Hodge Hill and Hartlepool. These less than roaring successes could not, however, hide the poverty of the tactic. In Hartlepool, the Labour candidate sounded like a Dalek with a programming error, as he fielded questions on subjects as diverse as welfare reform and foreign policy with the stock response: "What people here want to talk about is antisocial behaviour." On the government's genuinely solid record of achievement in bringing down unemployment and helping poor families and the low paid, the candidates had little to say.

Since the Labour party conference, Tony Blair has presented himself as addressing the great issues of the day. He promises policies on how to bring up children; how to pay for the pensions of the baby-boomer generation when it retires; and how to fight the war on terror.

All this is admirable, but the party does not appear to have the courage of its convictions. In practice, when it comes to elections, crime swamps everything else. The party assumes that law and order is the only language the working-class voter understands. Blair's adviser talked of six "safety and security bills" in the Queen's Speech next month. So when, a cynic might ask, would this fabled third-term parliament find the time to debate childcare?

With his back to the wall over the continuing issue of whether he apologised for errors over WMD intelligence, Blair can be expected to revert energetically to the strategy that propelled him to power in 1997. Michael Howard would not boast of it now, but he was once a rather liberal home secretary. In 1993, Blair, then Labour's home affairs spokes-man, seized on the murder of the Liverpool toddler James Bulger as a symbol of the diseased state of the nation. Faced with a Labour attack from the right, the then Tory government joined an arms race on law and order that has roared on to this day.

Blair's success in occupying Tory territory brought him the Labour leadership and a landslide victory. The pace did not slacken in the years that followed. Since David Blunkett became Home Secretary in 2001, the Home Office has been turning out anti-crime initiatives at the rate of one a week. The question that the party should be asking is whether, more than a decade after the Bulger case, the old tricks still work.

The practical consequences of the anti-crime bandwagon are well known but worth repeating. Politicians, much of the media and a significant proportion of public opinion want the criminal justice system to be tough on criminals. But being tough on criminals is not at all the same thing as being tough on crime. A vast amount of thieving and violence is driven by the drugs trade which, for example, in the past few days has brought to the East Midlands the horror of American-style drive-by shootings and resulted in the tragic death of 14-year-old Danielle Beccan.

One obvious way to reduce the power of gangsters and slash the number of burglaries would be to revert to the old British system of allowing doctors to prescribe heroin and cocaine to their patients through the NHS. Prohibition has been a disaster. Gang bosses are flourishing while attempts by the medical and psychiatric professions to treat addiction must rank among the greatest failures of contemporary medicine. None the less, it is said to be unthinkable that this government should take the rational step of reducing the demand for criminal suppliers. A relaxation of prohibition would imply that Labour was as soft on junkies as the Lib Dems.

The conventional political wisdom is that more of the same is the only feasible policy. But this proved not to be the case in the by-elections in Leicester South and Brent East, where Lib Dem successes suggested that Labour's power may be waning. After years of eye-catching initiatives, stunts, threats, macho posturing, attacks on the namby-pamby judiciary and denunciations of effete lawyers overconcerned with civil liberties, the public is showing signs that it is losing patience with Blairism.

Iraq has been a catastrophe for the Prime Minister not only because of the detail of the dodgy dossier and the inability to be frank with parliament, but because it confirmed the widespread belief that Blair and his top ministers were "slippery" and could not be trusted to tell the truth. More worrying for the party's election prospects is that the Labour leadership has failed to grasp how widespread this belief now is and how deep is the contempt in Britain for its spinning culture.

It is not surprising to see new Labour honing its narrative of being the party of law and order. But the electorate may well treat this weapon of last resort with as much contempt as it has the flawed reports of those other missing weapons.