On the subject of British policing there are two schools of thought at Westminster: the first is noisy, the second is silent.
The loud argument is that the case of Sarah Everard has exposed the need for greater action to tackle violence against women and girls. On 15 March the Conservative government duly announced an extra £20m for the Safer Streets fund, which provides better street lighting and more CCTV, while on 16 March the Labour opposition unveiled a ten-point plan, which included proposed new laws to increase jail sentences for rapists and domestic abusers.
The silent consensus, though, concerns the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the 13 March vigil at Clapham Common, south London, which officers aggressively broke up. There is usually an endless supply of politicians willing to defend the police no matter what; in a country where the median opinion is firmly authoritarian, the path of least resistance is always towards relieving the police of scrutiny and handing them more power. But the scenes at Clapham Common made those arguments impossible, at least momentarily.
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In defending its dispersal of the gathering, the Met Police cited concerns about coronavirus. But a similar vigil in Nottingham went ahead without incident because the police supported the event and facilitated a Covid-safe protest, while Rangers’ title triumph in the Scottish Premier League triggered celebrations by supporters in Glasgow that were lightly policed and do not appear to have resulted in a new outbreak of coronavirus cases in Scotland.
To believe that the Met Police could not have handled the protest better requires you to think that women in London are more violent than women in Nottingham, or supporters of Rangers – both of which stretch credulity. This pushed Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer into uncomfortable political territory: one in which they were forced to criticise the Met Police, albeit in fairly measured terms.
Superficially, that agreement doesn’t extend beyond the two party leaders. Conservative MPs are more likely to mention the presence of ACAB (“all coppers are bastards”) slogans among those attending the vigil and to warn against a tragic moment being “hijacked” by a fringe minority. Labour MPs are more likely to point to pictures of women being forced to the ground in handcuffs or heavily restrained, and to call for an inquiry.
If you speak to the average MP of either party, however, the reality is that their views on the Clapham Common incident are much more closely aligned. Most Labour MPs oppose measures to reduce police funding and, at a local level, happily campaign for increased budgets and more CCTV. Almost all Conservatives think that the Met Police’s handling of the vigil was heavy-handed at best and incompetent at worst, while the loudest and most consistent critics of the limitations on protest imposed by the coronavirus laws can be found on the Tory benches.
However, it suits the leaders of both parties to play up their divisions: on Johnson’s part, to talk up the Conservatives’ appetite for ever more draconian punishments and tighter laws, in contrast to Labour’s supposed softness on crime and punishment. A focus on toughness avoids difficult questions: about the gap between the Conservatives’ enthusiasm for passing new laws and the government’s reluctance to finance the enforcement of existing ones adequately; and about how to reconcile Johnson’s new commitments on violence against women and girls with further looming cuts both to the criminal justice system and local government.
For Starmer, the opposite dynamic is in play. Labour is seen as weak on law and order. But by emphasising the Conservatives’ unwillingness to pay for meaningful change in policing, he can move the argument on to territory where Labour is trusted: spending on public services. Voters looking for a serious position on the policing of the 13 March vigil, or on policing in general, instead have a choice between two parties shouting the word “more”: for the Conservatives, more authoritarianism; for Labour, more funding.
The contrast with other areas of public policy could not be more marked. The two parties have significant disagreements about how to run schools and fund universities, how best to manage the NHS, and whether private involvement and outsourcing are a blight on the service or a spur to improvements. But on policing in England and Wales, neither appears comfortable with a position that goes beyond handing the police more power, more money, or both. This is particularly damaging when big and important debates over the future of policing are taking place, as more crime moves online, and crucial decisions are being made about the importance of targeting so-called minor sexual offences, the perpetrators of which frequently progress to committing major ones.
In reality, what unites both parties is an apparent acceptance that the scenes at Clapham Common are the best that either politicians or Londoners can expect from the Met Police; that a vigil on Clapham Common will never be policed as sensitively as a vigil in Nottingham, or a league title triumph in Glasgow. And that, ultimately, the police force is most useful as a way to win votes by either signalling Conservative toughness and Labour weakness, or Labour generosity and Conservative meanness.
The police are treated as a device with which to win or lose elections, rather than as an essential part of the public realm. That view of the world might serve Johnson and Starmer’s political interests, but it has no value for anyone else.
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold