Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Lag Blag

Labour claimed in the 1990s that its values could better tackle crime than the Tories’. Has it given up, asks Sunder Katwala

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Labour’s 1990s recovery depended on overturning the caricature that the left was soft on crime, weak on defence and high on taxes. But the ambition went beyond simply ‘closing down’ the issues where Labour felt most vulnerable to attack. Labour also sought to argue that its own values could offer more effective solutions in areas the right claimed to ‘own’.

The soundbite of our age, shadow home secretary Tony Blair’s pledge to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’, claimed that Labour values of mutuality and community would shift public debate in a progressive direction. Yet, a decade on, the politics of crime sees parties outbidding each other on beat bobbies and head-shaking catastrophism on teenage morals. So must we now accept that crime is a ‘third rail’ that progressive parties can’t touch?

A key question is the issue of resources. What works? Does the balance of spending on crime and justice makes sense if we want to cut crime and re-offending? The evidence is that prisons can be effective – in rehabilitation and reducing reoffending – but not when they are full to overflowing. Prison numbers have risen sharply, a reflection of tougher sentencing at a time of falling crime. The prison population needs to be reduced significantly, probably to around half of the current level, if prisons are to have the chance to work effectively with those who do need to be there.

Can the public ever be convinced? Those campaigning for change might usefully focus less on bleeding hearts and more on a bleeding-wallet liberalism if they wish to reach out to new audiences and build broader coalitions for reform.

The public is suspicious of ‘soft option’ alternatives. But the overuse of prison makes it often an expensive way to make bad people worse, preventing prisons from having an important and useful impact on the worst offenders. Resistance to support for education and rehabilitation can be challenged: out of more than 70,000 prisoners today, all but three dozen will eventually be released.

Rehabilitation in prison will only work if it is linked to what happens when prisoners come out. The loss of family ties or of a job makes returning to the community very difficult, and there is inadequate and underfunded support.

But this process could start much earlier in sentences. There is a strong case for studying the German example of intermittent custody, including ‘weekend prisons’ and special hostels where some offenders who are not a high security risk are free to work in the week and incarcerated only at weekends or for other forms of limited custody. Offenders are thus allowed to maintain family relationships and hold down a home and a job while being deprived of liberty.

We also need a deeper public debate about drugs and crime, too often crowded out by the marginal issue of the classification of cannabis. What is missing is any informed public discussion of which policy approaches can best deal with the crime, health and social consequences of drug addiction. The public might well support the offer of mandatory rehabilitation to offenders with drug addiction problems as an alternative to custody. This already happens in both Sweden and the Netherlands despite their very different cultural approaches to drugs policy more broadly. It would be expensive but have longer-term benefits.

If we want to take the public with us and embed a ‘progessive consensus’, we need to rethink the current approach of sounding as tough as possible while hoping to slip some progressive reforms through on the quiet. Every Queen’s speech is crammed with Home Office bills to demonstrate how seriously the government takes public concern over crime, ensuring that the issue retains a high profile in the media. But does it work? Or do we simply confirm false public perceptions of a crime wave, and create yet more pressure to crank up the rhetorical war on crime further? The government’s criminal justice policy focused in the second term on ‘rebalancing’ a criminal justice system seen as both too slow and too favourable to offenders. Yet conviction rates are already over 85 per cent when cases come to court (and not every defendant is guilty).

Much more important in undermining public confidence are low detection rates much earlier in the process.

In a third term, Labour might seek to legislate less, while taking a number of concrete steps that, over a longer period, could help us to re-engage with the public in a different way. First, is it possible to have a public debate more influenced by the facts? While crime has fallen, the fear of crime has risen. Simply pointing this out, however, will not change perceptions; it is difficult to challenge the preference for anecdotal evidence over statistics. But the Home Office could publicly remove itself from the production and publication of crime statistics, so as to bolster their credibility.

A neutral independent panel might also be better placed to get across to media and opinion-former audiences arguments about statistics – why, for example, the use of the British Crime Survey data offers a better guide to what is happening than the recorded crime figures. Statistics are not everything, however.

Second, local and national politicians should show that they do also take public perceptions seriously. It is no good telling people that they are safer if they do not feel it. This is particularly relevant to low-level, antisocial behaviour and its impact on liveability in local communities, where subjective measures of well-being might be used alongside other objective indicators. For example, the number of people agreeing that ‘things around here are getting better’ should be a key indicator of success or failure for all of the many agencies and bodies involved.

Third, progressives should champion the extended use of restorative justice, where offenders (who have pleaded guilty) are brought together in a facilitated setting with victims. Anybody who has observed such a session will know how powerfully they can capture important notions of responsibility and remorse, and this approach makes the impact on the community central in a way that the institution of the courts system cannot do.

It is too early to have robust evidence about the impact on reoffending rates.

But the power of restorative justice goes beyond this: Charles Pollard, former chief constable of Thames Valley Police and chair of the Justice Research Consortium, has spoken of how ‘in many ways professionals get in the way – we have tended to steal the conflicts and the ability to resolve them from the community where they belong’. It is important to demystify criminal justice if we want public ownership of it in a post-deferential society. Making restorative justice the norm would offer a strong basis on which to build consensus about how sentencing can link to rehabilitation.

The immediate post-election debate about respect has been too narrow. It may address public concerns about crime and disorder, which have an important impact on quality of life. But the government risks implying that Labour’s fundamental critique of contemporary British society is: there has been a mystifying decline in respect about which something must be done. This risks being a rather thin, conservative agenda unless we can link together debates about criminal justice and social justice much more strongly.

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Sunder Katwala

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