'Reid'ing the riot act: New Labour, crime and punishment.

Author:Lawson, Neal

As crime goes down--prison numbers go up. Why? Crime is down by 44 per cent since 1995. The chances of being a victim of crime are now the lowest they have ever been since 1981. But prison numbers are at a record 77,000, up from 61,000 in 1997 and set to rise to 90,000. Britain imprisons 50 per cent more people per head of population than Germany and France. We hold more of our citizens in prison than oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia, China and Burma. Why, when crime is falling?

This issue of Renewal focuses on crime and punishment and tries to present arguments about what's going wrong, why and what we should do about it. The basic premise of the arguments contained here is that prison, in many cases, isn't the right answer for the individual or society. New Labour says it likes 'what works'. But prison doesn't work. We need to understand why, against all the evidence, the government insists it does.

New Labour's crime

Everything about New Labour and crime starts and finishes with the soundbite 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.' It was first used by Tony Blair when he was shadow home secretary in 1992 but its authorship is uncertain. Some have claimed this phrase was coined by Gordon Brown. What matters is that it succinctly summed up a genuinely 'third way' approach to crime and punishment and proved to be immensely popular. Both the symptoms and causes of crime would now be addressed.

If this is where the balance of the government's approach was to rest then any complaints about the government's approach to crime would be marginal. If the politics of 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' had been systematically implemented, then--nine years on--we would expect to see crime falling as a salient political issue not rising further up the agenda.

In his 24-point plan announced on 20 July 2006 to win back public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system, John Reid talked about being tough or tougher on crime 34 times. Only once did he mention the causes of crime. This is the crime ratio that matters to New Labour: 34:1.

Few on the left would object to be being tough on crime, not least because it tends to be the poor and vulnerable who suffer most from criminal behaviour. Determined criminals, people who harm others, have to be dealt with. But after nine years in office the emphasis should be shifting towards causes not toughness; instead, New Labour is becoming increasingly fixated on tough action. This will make things worse, not better.

To some degree New Labour has been true to its word. It has been tough on crime. It has introduced over fifty new laws and created 700 new offences. Most contentiously, it has introduced Asbos and summary justice initiatives such as fixed notice penalties. More people are sentenced for more crimes for longer terms in prison.

But New Labour has been tough on the causes of crime, too. The minimum wage, Sure Start, tax credits and a whole number of schemes have addressed many basic inequalities. The tide has not been turned against the rise of inequality we inherited from the Thatcher years, but it has been halted. Some 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty. It's not enough, but it's a start.

What has gone wrong? In part it's an issue of rhetoric. All the political emphasis is on being tough on crime, not on the progress made in terms of addressing some of the causes. For New Labour this is a swing voter, middle England issue. It's about courting right-wing media barons who are still deemed to be all-powerful in deciding who wins and who loses elections. In that sense there has been absolutely no progress since Blair went to pay homage to Murdoch shortly after his election as leader in 1994, as he is doing again this summer.

Crime wasn't always a political issue. The Tories politicised crime in an authoritarian way at the 1979 election and the parties have converged on their agenda since. This was especially so after 1992, when Blair faced Michael Howard across the dispatch box as shadow home secretary. The Dutch auction on crime and punishment had begun. New Labour changed its tune on many issues, often for valid reasons, but nowhere in such a populist fashion as crime.

The defining issue for Blair and New Labour was the tragic death in 1993 of Jamie Bulger. Here was an example of seemingly feral kids out of control, beyond the reach of society and crucially, as we shall see, of the economy. This tragic event was used symbolically as the basis for the authoritarian reassertion of control and authority over those beyond the reach of 'mainstream' society.

There are two key features of new Labour's toughness. The first can be called 'liddism'. This is the overwhelming urge to address symptoms not causes. The second is 'initiativitus'. This is the uncontrollable urge to follow one example of 'liddism' with yet another--often in contradiction to what went before and certainly at such a pace that no-one in the criminal justice system has time to implement the last policy effectively. On crime New Labour must always be seen to be doing something--responding the 'the public's concern' with action plans and high profile responses. And that something, to a ratio of 34:1, is to be seen to be tough.

Take the 'respect agenda', an issue for which we now have an action plan. Not only is it a startling naive approach to believe that a complex issue like respect can be solved via a Whitehall action plan; more worryingly it demonstrates a failure to grasp what the respect agenda is all about. Blair got the idea of 'respect' from the sociologist Richard Sennett. Sennett, in examining the decline of respect, was talking primarily about the lack of respect the powerful show to the powerless. Blair has inverted the meaning and the concern--and attempts to solve the inverted problem with an action plan. Announcing his respect action plan on 10 January 2006...

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