The old Tory strategy for fighting crime was to lock criminals up. This past year the Conservative Party has found a more effective crime-fighting plan. It replaced lock-up with lockdown and crime duly dropped. Rates of robbery, violent crimes against the person, homicide and offences involving firearms or knives have all fallen significantly over the months of lockdown. Meanwhile drug-related offences, fraud and hacking rose during the pandemic, which shows that even criminals have spent the last year working from home. Yet here is an issue on which the Conservative Party will prove to be vulnerable.
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The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has now passed its third reading in the House of Commons and is going through the upper chamber pending royal assent. What has provoked anger, and prompted the Kill the Bill protests, is the excessive power it grants to a home secretary to define a disobliging protest, and the rather pathetic specification that the maximum prison sentence for criminal damage to a monument should be increased from three months to ten years. As if that’s the priority. Labour, under the impressive shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, has quite rightly opposed the passage of a bill that is largely beside the point.
The police recorded 5.4 million crimes in England and Wales in the year to March 2021 − a fall of 10 per cent on 2020. But the good news can’t last because lockdown can’t last, and the second half of this parliament is likely to see something of a crime surge.
Criminal activity, rather like the legal economy, has tracked lockdown closely. It increases as we emerge from home and it drops when we retreat indoors. After a summer spent outside, recorded crime in September 2020 was only 4 per cent lower than it had been the previous September. Criminal activity in March this year was 7 per cent higher than in March 2020, when the first lockdown bit.
These figures hide some worrying trends. In 2021 so far there have been more than two million reported incidents of anti-social behaviour − drink and drug use, fly-tipping, vandalism and threats against the person – a 48 per cent increase on 2020, following decreases over the past ten years. Anti-social behaviour is one of those questions that is rarely raised in public debate, but is rarely not raised in local political campaigns.
Even more worrying than that, knife crime has been going up across England and Wales for a decade. Figures released by the Labour Party showed that, in a third of police forces, knife crime has doubled since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. Interestingly, some of the biggest increases have happened in places, such as Surrey, Sussex and Norfolk, that the Tories would have once taken for granted as heartlands and which might now be politically competitive.
This is really going to matter because the criminal justice system is not going to be able to cope. Even a return to the status quo ante from the criminal fraternity is going to prove intolerable. The lethal combination of austerity followed by a pandemic is already causing the system to seize up.
The average time between an offence being committed and a charge being made has risen, between March 2020 and March 2021, from 53 days to 286 for sexual offences, from 17 days to 86 for robbery, and from 12 days to 46 days for violence against the person. There is a backlog of 57,000 cases in the Crown Courts, and the worst thing is that this is not just a “pandemic effect”. There were 39,000 cases backing up before Covid struck, as a result of austerity. In May this year, more than a quarter of all criminal cases failed due to victims leaving the process. This is the highest dropout rate on record, and the rate has also doubled since 2015-16. There is a serious system failure in prospect here.
Which is an opening for Labour − in two ways. The first is that the level of crime is a salient question that activates many voters. It is a policy issue on which no great complication is needed and in which the lost public spending on the police and the courts has had a direct effect on the slow collapse of the system. This is one arena in which being opposed to spending cuts does not sound like typical Labour profligacy. Most police have been offered a pay rise of 0 per cent. Opposing this sounds like a respect for law and order, because that’s exactly what it is.
The second opening is that this topic is a gift to Keir Starmer. Between 2008 and 2013 Starmer led the Crown Prosecution Service as the director of public prosecutions. Let’s dwell on those words and weigh them for political significance. Director, Crown Prosecution Service. They have connotations of leadership, the monarch, the people, prosecuting criminals and public service. That is quite a collection of virtues to be able to evoke quickly. If the larger part of what Starmer has over Boris Johnson is that he can wear the mantle of serious government, which the Prime Minister cannot, these words will do a lot of work for him. The indispensable, unspoken message contained in “Director, Crown Prosecution Service” is that “this man could be prime minister”. As the political term ends, this is the most important item on Starmer’s report card. It might be the only thing that matters so far.
It was always impossible to imagine Neil Kinnock, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. They all failed the blink test, which Starmer passes: it’s not so hard to close your eyes and imagine him standing on the doorstep of No 10. That is by no means a passport to power, but Labour is led once again by a lawyer who exudes authority on the charged issue of crime. That went well enough last time.
This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special