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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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