August 23, 2022

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the killing of Thomas O’Halloran was how unsurprising it seemed. The details are awful: an 87-year-old man, known for his local fundraising, stabbed to death while sitting in his mobility scooter in a suburb of West London. It made the headlines, but there has been no great national introspection, no sense this was a true aberration. It was just a horrid but ordinary incident in a country where it increasingly feels like crime is legal.

The killing was one of half a dozen or so last week in London alone, where 67 people have been murdered since the start of the year. Beyond these shocking figures, petty crime has become almost unpoliced, while robberies and burglaries are nearly always unresolved. The city’s Metropolitan Police force remains in special measures after a failing to address, or even really acknowledge, the failings apparent in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder and other longer-standing scandals.

From the outside, the force seems entirely dysfunctional, somehow both unnecessarily authoritarian and impotent. Yet police services around the country seem little better. A further five forces are in special measures, with Greater Manchester Police failing to even record crimes, never mind solving them. Across the country there is a similar picture of forces being overzealous on trivial matters, yet repeatedly failing to deal with the most serious of crimes.

The wider criminal justice system is equally troubled. Overcrowded and crumbling courts cause unbearable delays to prosecutions, hampering attempts to bring criminals to justice. Anecdotally, lawyers tell me that trials are currently being listed for 2024, up to three years after the crime took place. This will be exacerbated by the strike action to be taken by publicly funded barristers, whose income has atrophied over recent years. Quite simply, the criminal and justice system is on the verge of seizing up entirely.

And yet, somehow, neither Liz Truss nor Rishi Sunak seem to recognise this, let alone offer any remedies to fix it. Truss’s recent major announcement on crime was not a strategy, but rather a list of things she wished were true: a promise to bring crime down without any new resources or thinking to do it, repeating a desire for targets and league tables without any sense of how those are met. Sunak, meanwhile, has promised the strengthening of sentences, but little that addresses crime prevention or detection.

For the most part, however, this lack of vision is merely a continuation of at least a decade of Tory impotence when it comes to lawlessness. The increase in police numbers under Boris Johnson’s government, for instance, was little more than a reversal of cuts and did not make up for the experience lost under the austerity-driven exodus. In particular, shortages of detectives have significantly worsened “clear-up” rates, with crimes more likely to go uncharged and un-convicted. As for those cases that pass this stage, they are still likely to linger in a court system which lacks sufficient judges, buildings, and lawyers to run effectively — all problems that could be largely solved by a commitment to spending where it counts.

Beyond that, the Conservatives are reluctant to confront systemic issues within the police. While ministers are keen to criticise the civil service that oversees it, the Tories appear reluctant to intervene in the actual organisation of police, despite the way the many forces fall short of the mark. What interventions have been launched in the last decade have often gone awry. The partial privatisation of the probation service, for example, proved muddle-headed, worsening performance and ending with an expensive bailout of providers. Similarly, the creation of Police and Crime Commissioners has offered little in the way of actual improvement; the office is poorly understood by the public and is notable largely for its scandals. Even the Johnson government’s reforms on sentencing — such as ending the automatic early release of offenders deemed to be a danger to the public — have been undermined by being pushed through in bills which also seek to reduce the right to protest.

Contrast this with the party’s long history of asserting its place as the home of law and order. The Thatcher government largely exempted the police from spending cuts, but also sought reform, passing the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in the wake of the Scarman Report into police search methods. Under John Major, a series of Criminal Justice Acts pushed for a more punitive criminal justice system, culminating in Michael Howard’s famous declaration that “prison works”.

Today, the party offers only soundbites, without conviction or fresh thinking. With the right approach, the Conservatives could combine the popular red meat of increased convictions and tougher sentences with the desire for more effective use of state resources. Yet they seem unable to deliver either, choosing instead to posture as the police fail and the country slips into the depths of lawlessness.

Without clear action from a new prime minister, this stagnation will not be reversed. The police will remain a discredited organisation, derided for a preoccupation with offensive words and an inability to catch villains, while at the same time tainted with an internal culture of misogyny and lingering issues around racism. Meanwhile, the courts will continue to lack the resources to push through convictions, and prisons will remain violent and dangerous holding pens which do too little to stop future offending.

With an economic crisis looming, it’s hard to believe that crime rates, already at a 20-year high, will improve of their own accord. If nothing meaningful is done to stop this slide towards chaos, a bleak winter could easily spill into widespread civil disobedience on a scale not seen since the 2011 riots. The perception of crime, and particularly the feeling that the police service cannot deal with it, eats away at social trust. It’s a pain felt in every unlit walk home, every catcall, and every tale of a friend being mugged. And it won’t be healed by platitudes.

So, with two weeks to go, as they glide around the Tory shires looking to win their final votes, Sunak and Truss would do well to remember that crime isn’t a party issue, but one that haunts the country as a whole. And when we become numbed to attacks such as the one on Thomas O’Halloran, when an 87-year-old man can’t leave his home for fear of being stabbed, law and order can’t be said to have any meaning. Society becomes a vacuum, with anarchy threatening to fill the void. And there is nothing conservative about that.

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