The Opposition will need more than new slogans to become serious about crime
Since time immemorial, every political party which aspires to government has pledged to clean up the streets. Knowing as they do the extent to which crime is a touchstone issue on the doorstep, opposition leaders are usually desperate to present their party as being on the side of the law-abiding majority and more committed than the other lot to making our communities safer.
Yet in spite of the endless promises over many years by politicians of every stripe, lawlessness and disorder remain widespread, court sentencing an open joke, clear-up rates atrocious, and the police too absent from our neighbourhoods and seemingly more interested in virtue-signalling than they are the business of preventing and detecting crime.
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So we should be sceptical about Labour’s recent declaration of itself as the party of law and order and accompanying pledge to tackle anti-social behaviour. Sure, the move makes sense politically, not least because the highest levels of support for a tough approach to crime are usually found in the same working-class communities that are most blighted by it, and which just happen to form the kind of constituencies that the party must win back if it is to secure power again.
But we have seen this film many times before, and whether or not the fine words would ever translate into reality under a Labour government is, let us say, debatable. That is in no small part because so many on the Left still don’t get this stuff instinctively.
They see crime as an inherently “Right-wing” issue and are distinctly queasy about the concept of retributive justice, preferring instead to take a sociological approach that rejects the notion of free will, always assumes some other “underlying reason” for wrongdoing, and ultimately sees offenders themselves as victims. Tony Blair’s “tough on the causes of crime” mantra was an unintended but obvious admission of this. As for those “underlying reasons” that jar with their political prejudices — such as the absence of fathers in so many homes — they simply discourage any discussion of it. Their approach is, in the end, a dishonest one.
None of this is to say that we should take an unthinking “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” approach to crime. Of course it is vital to get the socio-economic factors right. Give people stable, rewarding employment and strong family and social networks, and the temptation to turn to crime will be reduced. But those who reject the moral dimension of crime are missing a crucial part of the puzzle. For it is an inescapable fact that the less robust the universal moral code that underpins a society, the more some will feel relaxed about doing wrong. (Anyone who doubts this might like to question why in the 1930s, despite deep levels of poverty and deprivation, crime rates remained low.)
So Labour may be on to a vote-winner with its latest initiative. But the party must ensure that, if it is to have any real meaning, the debate around it is rooted in the experiences and demands of ordinary voters. This means confronting uncomfortable truths such as family breakdown, asking why the police and justice system have become so utterly useless (it really isn’t just about a lack of funding), and being prepared to talk unapologetically about the moral dimension and the concept of punishment. The party and wider Left have traditionally shied away from doing these things. If they want to be taken seriously on the issue of crime, they cannot continue to avoid them.