The police's crime figures are not rated as a 'national statistic'.
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Police crime figures haven’t fallen – but that’s a good thing

Today's crime figures have shone light on an issue made famous by a landmark TV series: do the police fix their stats? The fact that their measure of crime hasn't fallen may actually be a good thing.

Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear… you juke the stats and majors become colonels.

One of the recurring themes of The Wire, the landmark 2000s-era television series on Baltimore’s drug-addled plight, is how the police fix crime statistics.

Do our police fix the stats? Recent revelations suggest they might. In November, whistleblowers told a select committee of MPs that they did. And in January, the government's top statistician downgraded the police's numbers – they are no longer counted as a 'national statistic'.

Today's release of the yearly crime figures for England and Wales have reignited the debate. The police's figures suggest there has been no change in crime.

From March 2013 to March 2014, crime fell by 0.4 per cent – its smallest decrease in a decade.

This seems discouraging. But it may actually mean these stats are the most reliable in years.

The problem with police numbers is the people that produce them are the same people who are judged by them. As The Wire showed, there is a crippling conflict of interest at the heart of the process.

This encouraged the Office of National Statistics to create an alternative crime measure in 1981. Their survey, of around 50,000 households, has been collected yearly for more than a decade – and has become the more reliable measure of crime.

According to the ONS, crime fell by 14 per cent in the past year.

Their data may be more accurate – but it also allows us to judge the police’s numbers. If there is a big difference between the number of crimes the ONS is reporting and the police are recording, that may indicate the police are producing ‘soft’ stats.

It appears that may have happened throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. The ONS’s survey consistently reported more than three times as many crimes as the police. But after a reporting change in the late 1990s, the difference came down.

By the early 2000s the survey was only reporting twice as many crimes as the police. In recent years that ratio began to creep back up towards a three-fold difference. But, thanks to the fall in the ONS’s measure, the difference has fallen back down to the level of the early 2000s.

Simon Jenkins, the one-time crime reporter and long-time national journalist, recently argued that "police statistics have been a conspiracy against truth for decades". "The only crime figures that should count are those of the BCS."

That may be so. But comparing the two sets of numbers can give us an indication of how unrealistic the police numbers can be.

While big falls in crime make good headlines, we should be more concerned with the legitimacy of the numbers we are fed. If today’s figures are an indication of better stats, they should be welcomed.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide