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12 March 2021updated 16 Mar 2021 9:21am

Why is Labour so uninterested in police reform?

The Labour Party has little to say on how to improve policing other than providing more money. 

By Stephen Bush

Why isn’t the Labour Party more interested in the Durham Constabulary? It is consistently ranked among the best across England and Wales. On almost every measure you care to name, the best place to be a victim of crime in the UK is Durham. On everything from effectiveness in solving crimes to victim support, Durham is top of the class. 

Across a range of fraught subjects, the Durham police force performs better than almost every other. It is always among the top performers for the “Best Use of Stop and Search” metric, with a low racial disparity and a high number of arrests resulting from stop and searches, whereas other forces, whether in disproportionately targeting black people, white people or other groups, struggle.

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

Labour should be proud of this achievement – and its achievements in policing elsewhere too. Ron Hogg, a former police officer who can claim part of the credit for Durham’s successes, was Durham police and crime commissioner from 2012 until his death last year, having been elected to the post as a Labour candidate. Vera Baird, the former Labour MP and now the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, was a similarly effective police and crime commissioner for Northumbria. Another progressive, Martyn Underhill, a former high-ranking police officer turned independent police and crime commissioner for Dorset, has been a vocal critic of the police over the Spycops scandal and has overseen new and bold approaches to victim support.

Yet there is a relatively little interest among successive Labour leaders and few sympathetic wonks and politicians on this topic, or much apparent pride in the successes of the past decade. This is crazy: imagine there were only a handful of areas with outstanding schools, that these schools were largely run by Labour politicians, and that the party could, pretty reasonably, claim to be the key architects of this success. It would be a huge topic of conversation on the centre left. Labour would never shut up about it!

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If Ron Hogg had had a similar record of success in the NHS, and had spent the last eight years of his life as a Labour office-holder, his death would have been the cause of innumerable tributes and speeches. Local Labour parties and student groups would organise memorial dinners or similar events.

Yet since the party left office in 2010, the only position that Labour leaders have been able to articulate on the police is that we should have more of them: that the only thing stopping the Metropolitan Police from being as effective as the Durham Constabulary is an absence of cash. That was Keir Starmer’s line even in the midst of a criminal investigation that may reveal serious errors in the Metropolitan Police’s approach, while Sadiq Khan, a man cruising towards a convincing re-election, was similarly unimaginative. 

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What’s the cause of the blind spot? One problem may be that while Labour can fairly claim a great deal of credit for these achievements, they are building on innovations from Conservative politicians. David Cameron introduced police and crime commissioners, and Theresa May introduced new and more transparent inspections for the police. There may be a squeamishness at work in embracing institutions developed by right-wing politicians, even if their most effective managers are on the left.

Is support for defunding the police on parts of the left part of the reason? I don’t think so: whatever you think of this position, it is something its advocates have actually thought about. The problem is that this group are (albeit in a different way and for different reasons) as marginal to Labour’s thinking on police and crime as the likes of Hogg, Baird and Underhill. Successive Labour leaders are, at least, more aware of the Defund the Police campaign than they are of Hogg and company, but their engagement with the idea is scarcely more sophisticated than their engagement with efforts to reform the police. 

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To the extent that the all-coppers-are-bastards position contributes to the centre left’s lack of interest in police reform, it is because it raises a question that is quite easy to answer if you are in electoral politics. The proportion of British ethnic minorities and the country as a whole that supports spending less on the police is teeny-tiny. You don’t really need to think very hard about why you’re anti-abolish if you are the business of winning an election in four to five years’ time. 

I don’t think the electoral calculation is the sole reason why Jeremy Corbyn supported spending more money on the police or the only reason Keir Starmer does. But because “just say we’d hire more of them” is an overwhelmingly easy electoral call to make, there is very little incentive for the centre left to think about what good policing looks like.

I suspect that is the real problem: because Labour is seen as the high-spending party by most voters and the media, the party’s leaders are never going to face much external scrutiny of their “we’d spend more on the police” line, and they are only ever going to face token opposition to it internally.

Does that matter? For all of us as citizens, yes. Does it also affect Labour’s electoral prospects? I think so, yes. While polls consistently show an opposition to the idea of cutting police funding, they also show high levels of scepticism about the police’s ability to catch criminals, and this broad distrust of police effectiveness is actually higher among the Leave voters Labour has been targeting since the 2017 election. Labour is not just hamstrung intellectually by its inability to think about policing in the 21st century, it is quite possibly missing an electoral trick too.