29 April 2005
Law and order was an area that the Conservatives used to dominate in election polls. But then along came New Labour with a stream of initiatives that have neutralised the issue, says Philip Johnston
When we look back at election 2005, the impact of Blair will be seen as one of the more intriguing moments of a fairly lacklustre campaign.
The Blair in question, however, is not Tony, but Sir Ian, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. The latter's endorsement of the government's identity card policy marked an unusual – some said unwise – intervention by a senior public servant in the political cut and thrust of an election.
To be fair, that Blair was responding to a question about an important policing issue following the conviction of Algerian terror suspect Kamel Bourgass. Chief officers have consistently backed identity cards: however, the timing was unfortunate and it might have been better for him to have said that any comment on his part would be inappropriate.
But it does go to show that whereas police chiefs would, in the past, have been considered a pretty conservative group of people (and, it could be argued, an ID card is a pretty conservative sort of policy) the current incumbents have bought heavily in to the government's law and order agenda.
It is by no means unusual to attend a Home Office press conference that has been called to launch a crime initiative to find a chief constable sitting alongside the home secretary, or a junior minister offering his endorsement for the strategy being announced. Often, government news releases are issued with quotes from chief police officers helpfully appended.
Clearly, chief officers have an interest in the outcome of a government anti-crime initiative and should not be denied their say; but it is often surprising to see the imprimatur of the Association of Chief Police Officers attached to what can be a bone of contention between the political parties.
It is a powerful weapon in the government's armoury to be able to rely upon the police to support its policies or to make clear their dissatisfaction with that of the Opposition. It has served to blunt the Conservative law and order message in this election campaign.
When the Tories placed a notice in local newspapers claiming that crime had gone up, Acpo let it be known that they regarded the information it contained as scaremongering and inaccurate. Protests were led by Richard Brunstrom, the chief constable of North Wales, who said: 'This misleading advert quite improperly seeks to stir up fear of rising crime when it is a well-established fact that crime has been falling for years, both locally and nationally.'
Perhaps it is not surprising that police chiefs would seek to defend their records against suggestions by a political party that they had allowed crime to get out of hand. They may also have calculated that Labour could well win the election, so not much will be lost by giving the Tories a bit of a kicking.
The net effect was that, pretty early in the campaign, the law and order issue was neutralised. Even a high-profile crime, such as the mugging of Nicola Horlick, the City trader, outside her London home, failed to ignite the issue in the early stages of the campaign.
It could hardly be argued that Labour was short of ideas for dealing with antisocial behaviour, organised crime, terrorism and the like – there has never been so much legislation pouring out of Whitehall.
Even if the Conservatives can legitimately maintain that any meaningful assessment of the crime trend is almost impossible because of the confusion caused by the publication of two sets of crime statistics every quarter – the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime figures – it was difficult to sustain a line that the government was inactive on the subject. If anything, it was doing too much, with regular overhauls of the criminal justice system leaving many practitioners bewildered by the pace of change.
But the upshot has been to leave the Conservatives articulating the inevitable disgruntlement people feel about the levels of crime without necessarily offering the assurance that they would do any better.
These political difficulties for the Tories are best illustrated by the approaches taken by the two major parties to the issue of antisocial behaviour. During the 1997 election campaign that first propelled him into Downing Street, Tony Blair pledged: 'We will tackle the unacceptable level of antisocial behaviour and crime on our streets.'
A reminder of this promise, and of Labour's apparent failure to fulfil it, was contained in a Conservative policy briefing that they issued to coincide with a renewed assault on Labour's law and order record.
One obvious problem for the Tories was that the level of yobbery had become 'unacceptable' under the previous Conservative government. Indeed, the home secretary at the time was none other than Michael Howard, now the Opposition leader.
Just before the 1997 election, Howard published a green paper containing proposals to tackle the country's youth crime problem 'at its roots'. Part of the strategy involved identifying unruly children and helping their parents to control them, or face possible court sanctions.
What was notable about this document was that it marked the point at which the two main parties came together on the issue by emphasising a carrot-and-stick approach. Labour had thrown off its reputation for giving the criminal the benefit of the doubt in order to make it difficult for the Conservatives to open the 'clear blue water' between the parties on crime.
Ever since, as disorder and antisocial behaviour have shown no sign of diminishing, the Tories have been trying to regain their once unassailable position as the party most trusted to turn the tide or, if that is impossible, to deal most harshly with those who
In the mid-1990s, before Blair coined his 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' mantra to re-position his party on the issue, the Tories consistently showed a huge lead of up to 39 points over Labour as the party most trusted to deal effectively with crime.
When the current campaign got under way, that lead had been all but eroded and has budged little in the Tories' favour. One poll even showed that voters believed crime would rise, whoever wins on May 5.
One reason that it has been such an uphill task for the Tories to make crime a tipping factor in the election is that there are few issues with which the current government has battled more than 'the yob culture'.
Tony Blair said a few weeks ago that he had probably attended more meetings on this subject than on any other – including the Iraq war – since becoming prime minister. This was a tacit admission that all the initiatives, from antisocial behaviour orders, to acceptable behaviour contracts, on-the-spot fines and night-time curfews, have barely dented the problem. Levels of
antisocial behaviour are no less 'unacceptable' now than they were in 1997. If anything, the drink-fuelled scenes in our town centres at the weekend are even worse.
The most recent crime figures, while confirming a drop in 'volume crimes' such as burglary and car thefts, continued to show a rise in the number of violent offences, although the government says this is a statistical glitch caused by the change in the way offences are recorded by police.
So, what is to be done? The Liberal Democrats have made scrapping the ID card scheme a central feature of their campaign. The party says it will use the money saved – estimated at up to £10bn – to recruit 10,000 more police officers on top of Labour's plans. More non-violent criminals, 'such as fine defaulters, shoplifters and petty vandals' would do community work as an alternative to jail.
The Tories want more police, although what matters is how they are used, rather than their overall numbers. A uniformed presence on the streets at night is the most likely way of stopping bad behaviour getting out of hand, yet the dearth of officers on patrol has been one of the most worrying trends of recent years.
The Conservative plan involves making the police more locally accountable and removing the presumption in the new licensing Act that favours drinking into the early hours.
They want to end irresponsible drinks promotions and introduce powers to tackle late-night disorder hotspots, such as town centres with an extraordinary accumulation of pubs and clubs that all close at the same time. Turfing hundreds of often drunk young men and women into the night air at the same time is a recipe for trouble.
Labour has earmarked dozens of neighbourhoods in England and Wales for special measures aimed at curbing low-level disorder, including the provision of special prosecutors and extra funding for more community support officers. Around 10,000 parish and town councils are to be given the powers already available to district authorities to appoint wardens to issue £40 on-the-spot fines for offences ranging from dog fouling to dropping litter.
In addition, ministers want councils and police to apply for more antisocial behaviour orders, which restrict an individual's movements. The Home Office said that last year action was taken against an estimated 100,000 cases of antisocial behaviour, involving more than 2,600 Asbos, although a third of these are breached.
Labour's tactical trick in this campaign has been to sound just as outraged as the Tories about high levels of crime, bad behaviour, police paperwork and bureaucracy, even though the party has been in power for eight years and should, therefore, be taking more flak for its failure to make us all feel more secure.
It has sought to take the credit for falling crime rates and at the same time promising more crackdowns and tougher action to reassure those – the majority – who think crime is going up, that they are not complacent.
Scepticism about Labour crime policy was best articulated not by a police chief but by a serving constable on the front line, who gave Blair a hard time on a radio phone-in last week. He said there was little point in recruiting more officers when most of them ended up doing desk jobs. 'I haven't got a problem with the powers you give police officers,' he said. 'You can put as many different powers towards us as you like [but] we don't have the police officers to support them.'
As far as the voter is concerned, it is increasingly becoming clear that the glut of initiatives is making little difference to what is a deep-seated cultural malaise where containment, rather than cure, is the most realistic policy option.
Philip Johnston is home affairs editor of the Daily Telegraph