When campaigning for the 2017 general election resumed after the London Bridge terrorist attack don 3 June, Jeremy Corbyn delivered a speech dressed in a black tie. His message was simple: cuts to the police as a result of austerity had jeopardised their ability to keep the public safe. He called for voters to oust Theresa May in the election three days later for overseeing those cuts as home secretary.
Labour’s proposed solution was to put 10,000 more police officers on the streets, funded by reversing the Conservatives’ cuts to capital gains tax. The policy helped to shift the focus of the campaign away from the economy, which the Tories wanted to speak about, and onto the failures of the government. In one of many painful twists for May that campaign, Corbyn was berating the Conservatives on law and order.
Two years later, Boris Johnson’s promise to hire 20,000 more police officers put the issue in the headlines again before the 2019 election. The promise became the Conservative Party’s second most recognised policy after “getting Brexit done”. Much as Corbyn did with that speech in 2017, Johnson used crime to speak to people’s concerns about security and underfunded public services. In both elections, crime played a pivotal role.
Will it be as important for Labour at the next general election? The party is planning a big campaign on law and order from next Thursday leading up to the local elections in May, in which party sources expect the issue of crime to feature heavily.
In the shadow Home Office team, led by Yvette Cooper, the focus is neighbourhood policing. At the party conference in October, Cooper announced her flagship £360m plan for 13,000 more police officers and police community support officers (PCSOs), funded by cleaning up police procurement. Labour’s justice team has also announced plans to give communities and victims the power to have a say over what people sentenced to community service do for that time.
The focus on neighbourhood policing is partly inspired by New Labour’s introduction of the practice back in 2005. Indeed, thirty years ago last week Tony Blair, then the shadow home secretary, set out in the New Statesman Labour’s promise to be “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. Today, the party’s slogan will be “prevent crime, punish criminals, protect communities”. “The key thing is positioning ourselves as the party of law and order,” one source involved in the discussions said. “Communities are essentially becoming lawless.”
Part of the strategy is to focus on specific types of crime such as county lines drug trafficking – in which gangs run drugs from cities into rural towns, often using children and teenagers – and violence against women and girls. On the former, Labour plans to make grooming children for crime, such as drug dealing, a new criminal offence. On the latter, Cooper’s team wants to create a specialist rape unit in every police force in England and Wales. Only 1 in 100 rapes recorded by police in 2021 resulted in a charge, let alone a conviction. Steve Reed, the shadow justice secretary, says Labour would introduce special rape courts to fast-track cases. For those who are convicted there would be a minimum sentence of seven years.
At the moment the economy, rising prices and the NHS are dominating both voters’ minds and the political agenda. Law and order is no longer as important to voters as it was in 2017 and 2019: at the time of the 2017 election around 10 per cent of voters put crime on their list of top priorities for the country; today the figure is half that. However, that may be changing. Another Labour source said internal polling and focus groups routinely suggested people put crime in the top five issues.
In any case, crime remains a vulnerable area for this government. The number of people who think the government is doing a bad job on the issue has risen to 65 per cent. Recent polling from More in Common and Public First found the public trusted Labour to tackle crime better than the Conservatives by a margin of 58 to 42 per cent.
The cuts to policing became symbolic in 2017. The question for Labour is whether crime will assume the same relevance in the run-up to the next election. Labour wants to make an explicit link between low crime and a strong economy as part of its agenda of devolving economic decision-making to local communities. “You can’t have a strong economy, and certainly not strong local economies, if crime is still a massive problem,” one source said. If Labour can establish that link in the minds of voters, then its crime policy would be part of a bigger, more coherent package which relates to a defining issue of the next election.
For the Conservatives, the huge court backlog and poor conviction rates for rape fit the argument that the government has ruined public services. Rishi Sunak and his ministers aren’t prioritising combating that narrative. Instead, the Home Office focuses on illegal migration. Even though the government has hired 16,753 police officers towards meeting Johnson’s 2019, Sunak makes little of the policy. Perhaps that will change if the government hits the target, as expected, in March. If he doesn’t, the government risks letting Labour define itself as the party of law and order.