The mayor of London faces a difficult choice on knife crime, forced by a pro-austerity government keen on taking political advantage, warn Jacqui Smith and Conor Pope
Police cuts became a prominent campaigning topic for Labour during the 2017 general election. This came as a surprise to some, as the section of the left that the current Labour leadership hails from has long had an uneasy relationship with the police. We rightly had a focus on increasing police numbers – even if we were not completely clear how much it would cost.
But this was not the first time. In the 2012 race for London mayor, police cuts was a major campaign issue for Ken Livingstone – himself a longstanding bastion of the left. While Livingstone was unsuccessful, it provided a framework for making the funding of police an anti-austerity campaigning tool. In its own way, this is the left reaching out beyond its base, repurposing an over-arching political narrative – anti-austerity – in a less comfortable framing in order to sell it to a more sceptical section of the public.
While this is a clever electoral tactic to move onto the traditional ground of your opposition, it becomes more difficult once in power. We are already beginning to see this in local government around the country, with the Conservatives’ latest plan to shift more responsibility for police funding onto council tax in order to force the primary burden onto Labour’s police and crime commissioners, and other locally-elected leaders.
Nowhere is this more starkly seen than in London, where the blight of rising violent crime is becoming Sadiq Khan’s primary headache.
After Livingstone’s failure in 2012, Khan won in 2016 with over 1.3 million votes – the highest personal mandate ever received by a politician in the United Kingdom.
Khan was recently reselected as the Labour candidate for the next contest in 18 months’ time, and has also discovered who his primary opponent will be. Shaun Bailey’s first weeks after being chosen as the Conservative candidate were marked by the uncovering of a number of disturbing remarks that saw him accused of sexism, Islamophobia and anti-Hindu prejudice. Khan’s re-election in 2020, then, does not currently look threatened.
However, just two years into the job, his legacy is not yet set. A series of popular transport policies – including freezing fares and introducing the ‘hopper’ ticket for buses – are not radical or long-lasting enough that it will be what he is remembered for. Sadly, a year-on-year rise in the number of knife-related murders committed in the capital could be.
This is not lost on his team at City Hall, who are eager to find a solution that endures beyond his time in office.
Part of the difficulty, though, is talking about the long term in an atmosphere where immediate solutions are demanded both by the media and the public, who want to see an end to violence on the streets. His Tory opponents are keen to place the responsibility for this tragic increase in deaths squarely at his door, even though the truth is that other cities like Birmingham are also facing big increases and it is government cuts to policing which have been a major contributor.
In early November, Khan’s comments that it ‘could take up to 10 years, and a generation’ to ‘make significant progress’ were leapt upon by opponents, who accused the mayor of writing off a generation of young people in the capital to the problem. What Khan had been talking about was treating knife crime specifically as a public health issue – an approach that has paid dividends in Glasgow. It was also in the context of something that comes to the heart of this issue: funding cuts.
Since 2010, funding to the Metropolitan police alone has been slashed by around £800m. By 2021, that figure will have risen to around £1bn. At that point, changes to pensions contributions kick in, meaning the Met will have to find £104m to add into its employees pension pots. This is the equivalent to at least 1,500 frontline officer salaries, in a force where officer numbers have already fallen below 30,000 for the first time.
On top of that, cuts to youth services have begun to bite. In the capital alone, £39m has been cut from council youth services in the past seven years, with 81 youth club and council youth projects closing in that time.
For Khan, there is only so much that can be done in the face of such enormous cuts.
He is not alone in thinking austerity has hit crime fighting too hard. Home secretary Sajid Javid also appears to accept in principle the argument that cuts to policing leads to rising knife crime. Given the numerous battles that he is fighting with No 10 on immigration and the Treasury on his budget, he has not yet managed to win the funding to reverse this impact.
But Javid has pushed chancellor Philip Hammond and local government secretary James Brokenshire to allow police and crime commissioners the option to double the police precept on the council tax bill from £12 to £24 in order to increase funding. There is an acceptance across the country that this is far too little to deal with the cuts being dealt out, but few expect much to change while May is in No 10. The relevant policies causing these problems were, after all, initially implemented by her during her time as home secretary and she has previously lauded them as a sign of her toughness and as an encouragement to other departments to do better.
Khan, then, cannot rely on the reversal of cuts for his strategy to tackle knife violence. The success in Glasgow – treating the issue as a public health concern, introducing violence reduction units and using stop and search – can be used as a part-model, if not entirely.
London’s violence reduction unit – a special Met branch staffed by 272 officers and funded through City Hall – was announced in September, and was set up after months of research into Glasgow’s approach. It aims to move young people away from criminal activity by working in communities to offer better opportunities from an early age. This is coupled with a Young Londoners Fund, a £45m project also funded by City Hall, to help give those caught up in gangs employment and training options.
These are good ‘tough on the causes’ measures, but will attempts to push the mayor into harder actions on criminals also prevail? Metropolitan police leaders recently unveiled plans to send armed officers into parts of the capital worst hit by gang violence, while Javid is a strong proponent for increasing stop and search. On the latter point, Khan is known to advocate for an ‘intelligence-led’ approach to stop and search, and is unlikely to shift. On the former, it would be seen as a provocative policy, given that visibly armed officers are currently restricted to areas most at risk of terrorist attacks.
This is where the difficult tightrope lies for Khan. The focus is surely on long-term solutions that may not bring short-term credit. This is the right thing for Londoners, but fails to reassure a shaken and worried public. Short-term action comes in two categories: expensive, which is unlikely to pass muster with the current government; or hard-nosed policing measures, which could jeopardise the community relations that need to be built to achieve the longer term rewards. He will need to use all his undoubted political skills to reassure families and communities that he understands their pain and calls for action and to win the argument that his is the only long-term solution to provide real security for Londoners.
Jacqui Smith is former home secretary and guest editor of this issue of Progress magazine and Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress
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