Labour has nothing to say to voters suffering at the hands of antisocial behaviour
Tony Blair, fresh from seeing the Queen after winning the 2005 general election with a majority of 66, made a speech in Downing Street outlining the government’s priorities. He listed five issues: the economy, public service reform, welfare reform, immigration and a fifth issue which seemed to strike a public chord.
Blair said: ‘I’ve been struck, again and again, in the course of this campaign by people’s worry that in our country today, though they like the fact that we’ve got over the deference of the past, there is a disrespect that people don’t like. And whether it’s in the classroom, or on the street, or on town centres on a Friday or Saturday night, I want to focus on this issue.’
He went on: ‘We’ve done a lot so far with antisocial behaviour and additional numbers of police, but I want to make this a particular priority for this government – how we bring back a proper sense of respect in our schools, in our communities, in our towns, in our villages.’
This statement of intent became the ‘respect agenda’, a major plank of the government’s programme. As well as the infamous antisocial behaviour orders, it included dispersal orders, parenting orders, and family intervention projects, all designed to tackle antisocial behaviour. Community heroes who had stood up against street gangs or low-level nuisance received ‘Taking A Stand’ awards.
‘Respect’ was rooted in the ideas of academic Richard Sennett, but Blair reached deep into public philosophy, from the Romans, via Hobbes, to give his programme an intellectual base. The doughty, no-nonsense Louise Casey was put in charge, and started to bang heads together across Whitehall.
As well as making sense intellectually, it made sense on the streets. For the first time people on estates and elsewhere felt that the government was on their side and understood the misery of living alongside noisy neighbours, feral children, intimidating teen gangs or drug dealers. It gave councillors and members of parliament an answer to the accusation – what good does politics do?
Whatever happened to ‘respect’? Gordon Brown came to office in 2007, and it was ditched. The Times reported on 11 January 2008 that ‘the dismantling of the whole “respect” agenda took place quietly last year as Gordon Brown sought to distance his government from key policy areas of his predecessor.’
There is nothing wrong with ditching your predecessor’s policies if you have something better to replace them with. History records that this was not the case on this occasion.
And perhaps ‘respect’ could have been ditched if the problem had been fixed. If no one faced the problems of blaring music, graffiti, crack houses, street corner drug deals or gangs roaming late at night, then it would be right to ditch ‘respect’. But we know that they do.
In 2012, Ed Miliband launched the local election campaign with an article in the Mirror which stated: ‘Labour councils will make it a priority to combat antisocial behaviour. But asbos aren’t enough. We need to stop problems getting to that stage. When people graffiti someone’s wall or vandalise their garden, there is a price paid by the victim and community. But if it is a first offence, too often it will result in a caution and nothing else. The offender may well go on to do the same thing more times. I say let’s nip the problems in the bud. Those who do the wrong thing should be forced to make it up to the victim. Of course, it should only happen if the victim wants it to happen.’
This was merely a repackaging of restorative justice, which has its uses, but does not address the problem at source. And most victims of antisocial behaviour want to see less, not more, of their tormentors.
Now, as we enter the 2015 general election campaign, Labour has little to say about antisocial behaviour. The phrase was not uttered by either the leader, or the shadow home secretary in their conference speeches. This represents an enormous hole in the manifesto. Where are the practical weapons we can pass to communities to tackle the people who refuse to play by the rules? What do we offer the decent, but cowed, majority? How do we embolden those who want to fight back? Answers on a postcard to Labour headquarters.
This is a classic example of how Guardian-reading Labour is out of touch with Mirror-reading Labour. It is a reason why the United Kingdom Independence party can hoover up white working-class Labour voters, as in Heywood and Middleton. It is another schism between the Labour party and the C2 voters who deserted us in their millions in 2010. It is proof, for those who seek it, that Labour’s politicians ‘don’t get it’.
Tonight a pensioner will be harassed on their doorstep, a mum will scurry past a crack dealer and a young person will have their phone stolen on the bus. And the Labour party has absolutely nothing to say to them.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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