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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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.