Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Standing up to crime, standing up for the vulnerable

In this guest editorial, ex-home secretary Jacqui Smith makes the social justice case for putting crime at the top of our agenda

When I became home secretary, I said that there was no greater honour for an elected politician than to be tasked with keeping people safe so that they can get on with their lives. It is easy in the Home Office to get carried away with counter-terrorism and the nightmares of the immigration system, but it is crime and its impact on our communities which should demand more of the home secretary’s time and attention. And it should be a much higher Labour priority.

The least powerful, the poorest and the most vulnerable bear the brunt of crime. It creates insecurity and limits people’s lives. As Ashley Dalton argues in her piece on knife crime, it is best addressed by strengthening communities and listening to victims. A vibrant and adequately resourced partnership of local agencies including schools, the National Health Service, housing and the voluntary sector all need to be involved in bringing down crime levels and building confidence in communities. These are Labour strengths.

Furthermore, tackling crime, shifting power and protecting the vulnerable is a progressive cause that should be at the heart of our future policy platform. As a wise man once said, only Labour can be both tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.

For a party which likes to drape itself in the mantle of law and order, the Tories have a shocking record on crime and policing. The total volume of crime may have continued its steady downward trend, but the pattern of crime has changed. More of it is online and a greater proportion of crime is harmful – with a particularly worrying growth in serious violence. Meanwhile, the number of police officers has been cut by over 20,000 and so have the non-police staff – the police community support officers who got to know people and provided a reassuring presence in our neighbourhoods; the police staff doing the admin to free up officers to spend time catching criminals.

As Pat McFadden sets out, this has fundamentally changed the nature of policing. I am very proud that while I was home secretary we delivered a neighbourhood policing team in every area. British policing is based on consent. This means local people have to be confident enough to provide intelligence to the police and to act as witnesses when necessary. Police have to be real partners – with children’s services to prevent both sexual and criminal exploitation such as the dreadful phenomenon known as ‘county lines’; with schools such as those in Birmingham training their pupils to mentor others to resist getting involved in violence; with hospitals like those in the trust I chair where great charity Redthread puts youth workers into the emergency department to work with young victims of violence breaking the cycle of retaliation and deprivation which can make victims into perpetrators. But too often, austerity has forced police to retreat from partnerships into old style policing.

The answer to violent crime is not the arming of police officers in our neighbourhoods as has been suggested this week by Metropolitan police chiefs. Guns cannot replace neighbourhood officers with all their contacts; their intelligence and their ability to build community capacity.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, in outlining his new approach, recognises this as he grapples with the pain and fear caused by the rise in violent crime in London. He cannot afford the action to take 10 years, but he is right to recognise that we need more fundamental and wide spread action to prevent violence in the first place, not just to catch the perpetrators once a tragedy has already happened and too often, a family is mourning a son or daughter.

And the answer to fewer police is not to restrict the things that count as crime. Sam Smethers makes a compelling case for misogyny being counted and treated as a hate crime. This has been resisted by senior police officers in the light of other pressures. This is understandable, but not acceptable. As Smethers says, we need a coalition with the police to argue for the resources necessary to keep people safe not to abandon them to hate and violence.

The pleasure of editing this magazine is being able to focus on a real and salient domestic issue outside of Brexit for a while. But we cannot completely escape its consequences. Harvey Redgrave identifies the extent to which our law enforcement depends on European cooperation and data sharing. A ‘no deal’ Brexit removes, at a stroke, vital tools to keep us safe. That was not on the side of the bus.

Labour can make a difference now. Former Labour minister Vera Baird explains how she is using her current role as a police and crime commissioner to turn the spotlight onto the criminal justice system and its failure to support women suffering violence. Member of parliament for Croydon Central, Sarah Jones, has led the argument for a more preventative approach to tackling violent crime which is now being picked up in the Home Office.

However, we need a more coherent approach to making crime a campaigning priority. Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit strategy is to deal with what made people vote for Brexit in the first place. There is little more alienating than feeling unsafe in your home or street. Labour has a proud record on supporting the police and cutting crime. Labour politicians are showing we can take action at a local and national level even from opposition. But it is only getting back into government which will enable us to strengthen the legislation and build the capacity to get tough on crime again. Come on Labour leadership, put yourselves on the side of the weak, the vulnerable and the powerless and make cutting crime a campaigning priority.

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Jacqui Smith

is a former home secretary and writes the Monday Politics column for Progress

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