The Tories have given up on crime. Not just their policies but their philosophy has failed. For crime is quintessentially a problem the individual cannot tackle alone. Crime demands that communities work as communities to fight it. Labour’s commitment is to match popular concern with a constructive and broad-based programme of action.
Stop any random group of people and ask them what are the key issues, not so much of the country, but for them as individuals, and the chances are that crime will be at the top or almost at the top. Fifteen million offences were committed last year. Most householders or car owners have been victims at some time in their lives. In 1993, there are expected to be close to one million assaults, muggings, rapes and murders.
But it is not just the daily lurid headlines that are a cause of concern; it is the constant round of abuse, vandalism and petty disorder. Of the 14,000 fire service call-outs in Tyne and Wear during the first five months of last year, more than 8,000 were either arson or hoaxes. The perpetrators are often young teenagers. Frequently cars are stolen and set alight – for no reason, with no financial gain.
Many of our old people live in a state of fear and do not dare to go out at night. When two 16-year-old boys were mugged in a Glasgow shopping centre one Saturday morning, the police told their parents that they shouldn’t really have been in the centre unaccompanied. They weren’t blaming the parents, just stating a fact of contemporary life. A survey on a north London housing estate found that more than half the residents of any age would not use public transport at night for fear of being attacked.
Crime profoundly affects the quality of our lives. It is ultimately linked with the strength and cohesion of the community. It is a cliché, but true nonetheless, that it is people who live on inner-city estates or use public transport – many of them Labour voters – who suffer most. Many of these people feel disenfranchised after 14 years of Tory neglect of inner-city crime. It therefore intensely interests our core voters, who look to Labour to reflect their anxiety and anger, not to respond with patronising sympathy or indifference.
However, it is an issue that stretches way beyond our traditional boundaries to the electorate we need to win. Rural England and Tory suburbs are now scarred by almost routine violence, affrays, assaults on the police on Friday and Saturday nights, which local people feel powerless to prevent.
Finally, it is an issue on which the Tories have patently and comprehensively failed. Crime has risen by 50 per cent in the past three years. Even the Tory press has begun to turn on its government.
There is a growing and open determination both inside and outside the Parliamentary Labour Party to make crime a genuine “people’s” issue, the subject of a national campaign for better and safer communities. To do that, we are setting out the principles of our approach clearly, so that old perceptions and misrepresentations are dispelled.
First, we are moving the debate beyond the choice between personal and social responsibility, the notion that there are only two sides to the “law and order” debate – those who want to punish the criminal and those who point to the poor social conditions in which crime breeds. The obvious commonsense of the matter – which would be recognised instantly by any member of the public – is that the choice is false and indeed misleading.
People have a right to go about their business without being attacked or abused or having their property stolen. They have a right, and society has a duty, to bring those who commit these crimes to justice, and to a punishment that properly reflects the seriousness of the crime. To act otherwise would be to betray the interests of those we serve.
Equally, the purpose of any system of justice should not just be to publish and deter, but also to rehabilitate, for the good of society as well as the criminal. Which is why there are practical reasons, as well as those connected with civil liberties, for reforming our monstrous prison regime.
Above all, any sensible society acting in its own interests as well as those of its citizens will understand and recognise that poor education and housing, inadequate or cruel family backgrounds, low employment prospects and drug abuse will affect the likelihood of young people turning to crime. If they are placed outside mainstream culture, offered no hope or opportunity, shown no respect by others and unable to develop respect for themselves, there is a greater chance of their going wrong. This cannot be challenged other than through active community intervention. To see this requires not a PhD in sociology, but a small experience of life. Yet the Tories are destroying hope for young people, slashing training programmes, closing youth clubs. They are inert in the face of rising youth unemployment.
We should be tough on crime and tough on the underlying causes of crime. We should be prepared and eager to give people opportunity. But we are then entitled to ask that they take advantage of it, to grant rights and demand responsibilities. The public – contrary to conventional wisdom – does not ignore the social context of crime. But, rightly, they will only listen to people who show understanding of their own plight as potential victims.
Second, we should support clearly and help the actual victims of crime. At present they are poorly treated and, on occasions, end up feeling they have become victims twice over. In particular, charges can be dropped or reduced without any input from the victim at all. This should not happen until the victim has been consulted. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service should be obliged to keep the victim fully involved at every point of the case.
Third, we should champion the cause of putting policing back in local communities. This does not just mean more policemen and women n the beat – though we should not underestimate the importance of this to ordinary people; but it means involving local people in the policing of their local communities, with the police acting in partnership with them, not as remote and unaccountable experts. There is no reason why policing priorities should be the exclusive preserve of the police. The worries of local people about those priorities – for example the drift towards ignoring certain types of offence – should be addressed.
There should be a comprehensive crime prevention strategy, led nationally but implemented locally, that is concerned not just with personal security, but identifies the nature and type of crime locally – that searches out and eliminates drug peddling, the lawlessness of gangs of youths and networks of criminal activity, and establishes a real basis of trust between police and people. This needs more local input, not less. It would be disastrous is, as is rumoured, the government abolishes police authorities and replaces them with boards of appointees.
Fourth, we should bring the courts and criminal justice system up to date, getting rid of antiquated procedures and ensuring that the possibility of miscarriages of justice, all too frequent in the past, is significantly diminished.
Finally, we should not be hesitant about applauding the government if it does things that are right. The Sheehy inquiry into police terms and conditions of employment may or may not come out with sensible reforms. But if it does, it would be absurd of Labour to defend police vested interests. Rather, we should state positively that reform is necessary, support reforms that are sensible, judge whether they improve standards of service and assist in bringing policing closer to the community. But we should resist what will undoubtedly be the Tory desire – to use the reforms as part of an exercise to shift blame for rising crime from government to police.
We face the future with only two options. We could end up like parts of the US, where there are more murders in a year in New York and Chicago combined than in Northern Ireland since 1969; where those who can afford it buy ever more expensive security systems, and those who can’t suffer increasing despair. Or we can start anew.
Labour is the only party seriously confronting all the issues connected with crime. Our approach is rooted in our belief that society needs to act to advance the interests of individuals. For crime, ultimately, is a problem that arises from our disintegration as a community, with standards of conduct necessary to sustain a community. It can only be resolved by acting as a community, based on a new bargain between individual and society. Rights and responsibilities must be set out for each in a way relevant for a modern world. The longer we leave it, the harder the task will become.
This article is part of the New Statesman’s 1997 election archive, New Dawn. Click here for the full collection.