Where wealth disparities and violence meet

As our politicians shed responsibility for managing the economy they have to prove their importance

As MPs enjoy their liberty in locations from Tuscany to Trinidad they might ponder why, as crime goes down, the number of people denied their liberty goes up. Crime is down 44 per cent on 1995, but prisoner numbers are at a record 77,400 - up from 60,100 in 1997. The answer lies in the shredding of the new Labour soundbite "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", first used by Tony Blair in 1992 even though its author is said to be Gordon Brown.

The soundbite bit the dust when John Reid announced a 24-point plan late last month to win back public trust in the criminal justice system. He talked about being tough 34 times. Only once did he mention the causes of crime.

There are two main features of new Labour's toughness. The first is "lidism": keeping a lid on problems, as with a rubbish bin and a nasty smell. The second is "initiativitis": the uncontrollable urge to follow one act of "lidism" with another. Each decision usually contradicts the previous one, and invariably is taken at such a pace that no one in the system has time to implement it.

Though it is only a noisy minority that feels let down by the criminal justice system, these critics are bolstered by a vengeful tabloid press. When Rupert Murdoch is in town, expect extra toughness. This happened when the Home Secretary announced that he wanted to test the feasibility of new laws to identify paedophiles publicly - a campaign that the News of the World has been waging for years.

New Labour likes to distinguish between hard-working families and the rest. When the rest includes the 34 per cent of the male population that will have a criminal conviction by the age of 30 this distinction is hard to maintain. But who among us never breaks the law, never pilfers or cheats? Cheating is fast becoming a national pastime. Children learn it from football, from politicians, and from parents who write their essays or make cash-in-hand payments to illegal cleaners and builders. In our boardrooms crime goes untouched. Look at the class-ridden fuss about the "NatWest Three". White-collar crime doesn't count. Their saving grace is that they look like "us", not "them". Or take the arrest of Lord Levy. According to David Blunkett, the home secretary who prided himself on his toughness, this was theatrical policing. Such hypocrisy is astounding.

Neoliberal triumph

So why has crime become so important even at a time when crime rates are falling? In a word, "neoliberalism". This enshrines the triumph of free-market dogma over social needs. It means that property values are prioritised over communities that cannot be costed and commoditised. So they must be broken down and replaced by markets in which social order and respect disappear. A decade ago shoplifting led to custodial sentences in 2.6 per cent of cases; now it's 20 per cent. Neoliberalism, with its emphasis on rampant individualism, encourages a culture that is calculating rather than rule-abiding. People will do what they must to get the trappings that define success in today's consumer society. The law of the market is the lawlessness of the jungle.

The triumph of markets ensures that the growth of relative inequality becomes a breeding ground for criminal behaviour. As the state is rolled back to make way for more profit-seeking companies, its ability to deal with the causes of crime diminishes. The growing sense of a loss of control over our world because of the spread of markets creates a generalised insecurity, which is condensed into crime.

Finally, as politicians vacate responsibility for managing the economy, they have to prove their importance elsewhere. That place is the crime agenda. Their acceptance of globalisation and its consequences won't permit them to deal with the real causes of crime, so only the symptoms are left. Add that up and you get to a "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" ratio of 34:1. Or, as Thatcherism would have it, a strong state to police a free market.

Labour is now overwhelmingly tough on crime just as the hoodie-hugging Tories are going soft. Its belief system of Victorian principles is out of date; so are its practices. It is time for something genuinely new and genuinely Labour. Morality, respect and responsibility cannot be beaten into people. You cannot build a tolerant society based on zero tolerance. Yes, it is morally wrong to mug someone, but so is having such obvious disparities in wealth and opportunity in a country where social mobility is drying up.

A new consensus on "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" is the perfect territory for Gordon Brown's progressive consensus. After all, if he really did coin the phrase, he might just understand it better.

Neal Lawson is editor of a special crime and punishment issue of the Labour journal Renewal (www.renewal.org.uk). Martin Bright is away