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24 March 2023

Keir Starmer wants to be tough on crime, but are his targets impossible?

The Labour leader wants to restore confidence in the police to its “highest ever level” and halve incidents of violence against women and girls.

By Zoë Grünewald

Keir Starmer arrived in Stoke-on-Trent (not to be confused with Woke-on-Trent, wherever that is) on 23 March to set out Labour’s law and order offer. He outlined ambitious targets – restoring confidence in the police to its “highest ever level”, halving incidents of knife crime and violence against women and girls, and reversing the collapse in the proportion of solved crime. He made a number of pledges: 13,000 extra police, bringing in new Respect orders (“anti-social behaviour orders with teeth”) and, presumably to the dismay of the Prime Minister, promised to “get clever” with fixed-penalty notices.

Crime is becoming a hot-button issue. The Casey report, published earlier this week, laid bare a culture of misogyny, homophobia and racism in the Met. The court backlog in England and Wales stood at 61,737 at the end of last year, while the average court case takes just under two years. Just one in 100 reported rapes results in conviction. Meanwhile, a 21 per cent rise in violent crime was reported in the year ending September 2022, with 2.1 million offences.

It is unsurprising that Starmer chose to make his speech in Stoke-on-Trent. Rising crime rates and court backlogs have heavily impacted Red Wall areas. Cleveland Police currently has the highest number of crimes reported per 100,000 people in England and Wales, while multiple magistrates courts have closed in places like Hartlepool. In the most recent polling of Red Wall voting intention, only 24 per cent of voters said they trusted the Conservatives more than Labour to tackle crime. Crime is, as the shadow policing minister Sarah Jones told me in February, a levelling-up issue.

Starmer spoke directly to working-class communities, criticising the Tories’ “complacency” in tackling these issues with a direct comparison: “Their kids don’t go to the same schools. Nobody fly-tips on their streets. The threat of violence doesn’t stalk their communities.”

Crime is an issue historically seen as better managed by the Conservatives. But the focus on partygate and law-breaking in Downing Street has placed doubt in the electorate’s mind. It could be a strong platform for Starmer as he can repeatedly underline his previous role as director of public prosecutions. Where Sunak has so often used Starmer’s professional background to undermine his Red Wall appeal, Starmer reclaimed it. “If the Tories want to attack me for being a human rights lawyer, attack the values I’ve stood up for my whole life, I say fine. That only shows how far they’ve fallen, and how little they understand working people,” he told the crowd. 

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The potential flaw of Starmer’s plan to tackle crime is not whether he is sincere about it but whether his targets are achievable. The same is true for his commitment to securing the highest economic growth in the G7. Given that the causes of crime have many variables – such as levels of unemployment or how quickly police reforms can make a difference – the Labour leader must be careful not to leave himself a hostage to fortune.

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