David Cameron is wrong: falling crime rates are not because of the "magnificent" police

Crime falls by nine per cent: but the government can't claim this as their victory.

That crime rates are down is not really news. Over the past 20 years crime has gradually halved in England and Wales - dropping, at regular intervals (averaging today's nine per cent), under the Conservatives, under Labour and now under the Lib Dem/Conservative coalition. Now youth unemployment is soaring, the population (of young men - the demographic most likely to offend) has risen, the govenment has cut welfare, people overall are getting poorer, and the number of police officers has fallen for the fourth consecutive year - by over three per cent.

What's cutting crime then? Is it, as Cameron claimed today, simply that the remaining policemen "are working better, working smarter" amongst all these newly hungry, savage youths? Is it because "[a]s a Government we have asked them to do more with less resources [and] they have performed... magnificently"? Can it, as Nick Clegg said today, be claimed as "one of the greatest triumphs of recent years"?

There could be another explanation. Here's one: while we don't know for sure that in the last two decades policemen have got better (as a consequence of the present government respectfully telling them to), we do know that technology has got better, and we do know that the internet has taken off. Here's the effect that has on crime:

1) Cars, with central locking and immobilisers, are now pretty hard to get into. Stealing cars was an acknowledged "starter crime", known to lead to bigger things (drug dealing and the like). Now that this is more difficult, the inept/casual young criminal no longer makes the grade. Like most other careers right now, entry-level crime is only for the properly smart and committed (or the well connected).

2) There is a growth in "high tech" crime - like cloning credit cards - and these don't show up in crime reports.

3) Neither does online crime - flogging fake designer goods and the rest of it. Criminologists have pointed out that crime began to fall in the mid-1990s, just as the internet was taking off.

4) While house security has got better, home goods like flat screen TVs have got bigger and are more difficult to carry. DVDs and kitchen hardware are now cheaper and not worth stealing, making break-ins hardly worth it. Crime simply doesn't pay as much as it used to.

And there are other problems with the Tory take on the stats. Today Labour cited the "deeply worrying statistics" underneath the headline crime news: that 30,000 fewer crimes have been solved, and rape is up by two per cent. Now while the second figure could be explained by the "Yewtree" effect - that efforts to increase awareness  have lead to more rapes being reported - the first is more damning. Perhaps the police aren't getting better after all.

There are also the positive effects of a recession on crime. While potential criminals have got poorer, so have their potential victims - there is just less to steal. Terrified at belonging to a jilted generation, the young are also drinking less, taking fewer drugs and applying to university in their thousands.

But if the government really wants to claim responsibility for today's figures, there is a way to do it. Since 1993, double the number of criminals have been locked up - and incarceration is a measure proven to reduce crime. Along with Labour then, the current government has probably brought down crime. But imprisoning people is also proven to have deep and lasting negative psychological effects on them and their families. With rehabilitation programmes cut, this makes it much harder for re-integration into society afterwards. Increased sentencing for lighter crimes is also a way of dramatically reducing the life chances of the disadvantaged. If this is a triumph, it's not much of one.

Their outfits, on the other hand, are truly magnificent. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.