Before New Labour, before Bambi’, before majorities of 179 and 167, before the new dawn and Things Can Only Get Better, there was this:
‘I think it’s important that we are tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, too’.
That was Tony Blair, not as leader, but as shadow home secretary, speaking to the World this Weekend in January 1993. He continued the interview by describing how antisocial behaviour should ‘be punished, if necessary severely’. He concluded, ‘you’ve got to be prepared to punish… and, where necessary, that will mean custody’. Arguably, it is the moment that started Labour on the path to a crushing victory.
This week, 22 years later, and if we are smart enough to see it, Labour may have had its next ‘tough on crime’ moment. Liz Kendall, speaking to lobby journalists, said:
‘Under this government, we have seen a quiet diminishing of Britain’s role in the world. Under my leadership, Labour will no longer stand by while the prime minister weakens our country and allows the world to become less secure.
‘That means insisting that the UK maintains our basic NATO commitment to continue spending two per cent on defence’.
To understand why, we have to go back to the reasons that ‘tough on crime’ made such an impact on voters – I suggest three.
First, it shocked. Over fourteen years in opposition, Labour had clung to traditional policies of nuclear disarmament, nationalisation, and high taxation. Our policy development lagged the needs of the country by years. By the time Tony Blair, as shadow employment secretary, ditched support for secondary picketing it was essentially irrelevant.
Arguably, Blair’s tough on crime proposition was the first time Labour got out in front to claim an issue that was both important to voters and outside of our comfort zone. Blair’s slogan came even before Michael Howard’s contention that ‘prison works’.
Second, it was a complete analysis. One of Labour’s core beliefs is that there is such a thing as community, essentially meaning that people are not wholly selfish. The lazy version of this view is that all people are fundamentally good at heart, that – with enough help and persuasion – criminals will repent and our enemies abroad concede.
I, too, believe the carrot is more powerful than the stick. It is one of the reasons I am Labour. It is also an insufficient analysis of the human condition for a party that wants to earn the right to govern. We have to show we care, but we also need to prove we have the cojones to be tough when people step out of line.
Some argue this is a classic example of how we gave up our values in exchange for power. But what part of Labour is about allowing young thugs to terrorise residents on council estates? What is left wing about leniency for convicted criminals?
Last, ‘tough on crime’ was simple. When Labour finally came out in this election to launch a concerted defence of the mansion tax, we ended up lecturing voters on the multiple sub-clauses of the policy. Did they not realise, we shouted on Twitter, that people who do not pay the higher rate of tax and earn less than £42,000 will have the right to defer the tax until the property changes hands? Did they not understand, we begged on the doorstep, that those owning houses worth £2-3 million would only pay £250 extra per month?
Voters were absolutely right to raise a sceptical eyebrow. They know that pre-election policy announcements are liable to evolve in government – the key is the message that the policy sends. Tough on crime sent an unmistakable message: Labour had backbone, and we were willing to use the stick when needed.
Which brings us back to a commitment to spend two per cent of GDP on defence. Admittedly, the soundbite is not quite there yet. But here is a policy that takes us way out in front. And we are going to do it in an area that shows we are as passionate about a strong and safe Britain as we are about a caring and kind Britain.
It is a complete analysis. We are not just pro diplomacy and building allies in Europe. We know that the world is a scary place and weapons will have as big a role as words in keeping us safe.
It is simple. Labour will not compromise on the security of our nation.
We do not need gimmicks to make us relevant again. Just sound policy, simply put.
Let’s hope we get it.
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