By Lauren Davison
"With the Tories lurching further to the right, law and order are sure to become even more integral to their platform. Labour must rise to the occasion."
Law and order has only been an election-winning issue since the days of Thatcher. The Tories fought the 1979 election on a platform which cemented them in the public imagination as “the party of law and order”. Prior to this, dealing with crime was not something politicians tended to wade into and was left to the “experts”. Under Johnson’s leadership, law and order have seen renewed focus. With the Tories lurching further to the right, law and order are sure to become even more integral to their platform. Labour must rise to the occasion.
Sadly, over the years, Labour hasn’t done so. From essentially staying silent on the topic for 5 years under Corbyn, to advocating punitive immigration policies under Miliband, Labour has failed to state their case for progressive law, justice and crime policy. Our record in government on these issues is grim too - many criminologists now regard New Labour’s justice policy as being more Thatcherite than Thatcher herself. Such was the pressure for any aspiring government to show the people it was “tough on crime”, a raft of ineffectual and punitive policies was advocated by Blair and Brown’s cabinets. In fact, whilst in power, Labour created over 3600 new criminal offences.
Labour simply mustn’t be drawn onto the Tories’ turf. They know the fear of crime and public anxieties are used as a currency by the right, to justify their harsh and punitive populist agenda. We don’t have to capitulate. With concerns shown recently about Labour’s potential swing to the right on law and order, exemplified with whipped abstentions on Spy Cops legislation, this article will demonstrate why lessons must be learned. It will explain why many on the left are fearful of a New Labour revival in this policy area.
By far the best illustrative example of how far a Labour government strayed from progressive policies on law and order, is their 2010 General Election platform. In their manifesto chapter devoted to “crime and immigration”, Labour pledged to put more police on the beat, targeted “50,000 of the most dysfunctional families” who were branded blights on their neighbourhoods, and placed a points system on immigration. In addition to the 26,000 prison places created since 1997, Labour promised there’d be 96,000 overall by 2014. ASBOs would be continued and community service would be harsher and participants more visible.
These were largely very symbolic policies, not always grounded in evidence, but expressly designed to assuage the growing public discomfort and anxiety around crime. Their record in government had been likened to a continuation of Michael Howard’s ideology of “punitive populism” and David Cameron’s government took a more liberal stance on some justice policies in their 2010 manifesto. Their major attack line was to highlight the civil liberties that Labour in government had eroded. This criticism did have some merit. Labour’s plan for ID cards was roundly criticised by many for infringing upon civil liberties, with the Government’s Race Equality Impact Assessment pointing out that BAME communities could be discriminated against. Subsequently, ID cards were scrapped by the Coalition. Equally, Labour’s attempt to lengthen the amount of time terror suspects could be held for (beyond the existing 28 days) was widely criticised.
Another disastrous policy which Labour had introduced pre-2010 was the Sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP), enshrined by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. IPPs, much like Life sentences, meant that a sentenced person was forced to serve a minimum tariff, before being considered for release by a parole board - but could be kept in prison for their whole life if the offender was deemed dangerous. Many people won’t see an issue with that - but in theory, you could have someone imprisoned for 16 months originally, to then be handed a 99-year sentence after the fact.
"Labour’s plan for ID cards was roundly criticised by many for infringing upon civil liberties, with the Government’s Race Equality Impact Assessment pointing out that BAME communities could be discriminated against."
Whilst designed for serious offenders, whose crimes didn’t merit a whole life sentence, they were misused and many human rights campaigners called them “draconian”. They were eventually banned by the European Court of Human Rights in 2012, and the Coalition abolished them in the same year but failed to do so retrospectively. The legacy of Labour’s disastrous policy lives on - at the end of 2019, there were 2,400 still serving IPPs. Many people justify the use of harsh punishments and sentencing, in recognition of their supposed “deterrent” effects. However, this is not true of New Labour’s reoffending record, where it missed or changed the goalposts on every reoffending reduction target it set itself.
Another issue, more thematic than policy-specific, and one linked to punitive populism, that ran like an undercurrent through New Labour justice policy, was the “othering” of offenders, as a distinct subclass of human beings. Centring the victim in political discourses of crime and justice served to emotivise the debate, and effectively shutting out any policy solution that, whilst effective and logical, could be seen to “prioritise the offender”. As Blair declared in 2004, “law-abiding citizens” were now the party’s boss, and their priority in government. It goes without saying, victims deserve support and must have confidence in the system - but if you’re aiming to reduce crime levels, support for offenders needs to be a key priority too. Some argue that probation services receiving a 160% increase in spending is a signal that offenders were supported under Labour - however, the bureaucratic restructuring of the service likely absorbed a lot of the extra funding. Most of the money allocated to staffing has not been spent on increasing highly qualified probation officers.
"Labour needn’t fall into the trap of assuming evidence-based policy and an emphasis on rehabilitation is “soft”, or that the only way to show toughness on crime is to erode liberty and human rights."
Labour has long been cast as “soft” on crime - for almost as long as they have been deemed economically incompetent by the Conservatives. Understandably, these are accusations that need disproving. However, Labour needn’t fall into the trap of assuming evidence-based policy and an emphasis on rehabilitation is “soft”, or that the only way to show toughness on crime is to erode liberty and human rights. If Labour gets this wrong, it will be already marginalised groups who bear the brunt. Clearly, there is much work to do to bring the public onside after December’s defeat. But is it any wonder the public is often more authoritarian on matters of crime and justice when that’s been the orthodoxy in policy-making from both main parties for the last 4 decades?
Lauren Davison is a postgraduate criminologist, and Labour Party member, who is passionate about Justice reform and pushing the Labour party to prioritise evidence-based policy.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.