Tough on crime, or just tough talking?

19 Jun 08
PHILIP JOHNSTONE | How often have we read stories over the past ten years or so that promised populist measures in the field of criminal justice, garnered a few favourable headlines for their apparent toughness and then disappeared without trace?

How often have we read stories over the past ten years or so that promised populist measures in the field of criminal justice, garnered a few favourable headlines for their apparent toughness and then disappeared without trace?

There was a classic example of the genre this week with the promulgation of new measures to deal with low-level crime, including a suggestion that offenders on community sentences should wear uniforms or something that would indicate they were being punished.

The proposals came from Louise Casey, formerly Tony Blair’s ‘Respect czar’, whose influence on government policy was thought to have waned with the departure of her mentor. But Casey is now at the Cabinet Office. Even before her report was published, the familiar headlines were back. ‘Labour plans to toughen up on offenders,’ said one. ‘Offenders face wearing badge of shame,’ said another.

The report also proposed giving powers to auxiliary police to detain people and issue on-the-spot fines for disorder. If these and other measures looked familiar it was hardly surprising. A few years ago, Hazel Blears — then a Home Office minister — landed in hot water when she suggested offenders should wear uniforms. The idea was never pursued and I would put money on this set of proposals going no further.

This is not because there is anything inherently wrong with them; it is simply that Labour has run out of credit on this issue and no-one seems prepared to give the party the benefit of the doubt any more. There have been so many crime initiatives that even the most punitively inclined begin to baulk at more. It has become a noteworthy feature of recent British politics that authoritarian measures are proposed by the Labour party only to be roundly denounced by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the civil liberties lobby and the judiciary.

When it comes to tougher measures on crime, you might have thought the Labour government could count on the support of the Tories — and so it could for the first few years after 1997. But, as more and more laws poured out of the Home Office with no obvious reduction in the sort of behaviour they were meant to address, the Tories often found themselves disowning measures they might have introduced themselves, given the chance.

This is, of course, partly a function of being in opposition rather than in government. But there has been a greater propensity for political cross-dressing than there ever used to be.

The most startling example of this has been on the issue of terrorism. Locking up suspects for a long time is something that many Tories would support with relish. When they were in government during the IRA campaign of the 1980s, Labour’s refusal to back the Prevention of Terrorism Act was a cause of fury on the Tory benches. But the PTA was far less Draconian than the current legislation. It allowed detention without charge for no more than seven days and Parliament had to renew the law every year.

True, the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001 changed the terms of trade where terrorist atrocities were concerned. But Labour’s illiberal tendencies have become so pronounced that they have managed to alienate their own ‘progressive’ supporters, while at the same time driving away those of a more authoritarian bent on whose support they might once have relied.

That is why David Davis’s one-man defence of civil liberties is especially disconcerting for Labour. Davis is the sort of working-class Tory whom Labour has the greatest cause to fear: he appeals to Labour’s own voters and is a Rightwinger who would normally be expected to embrace a tough line on terrorism.

Davis’s motivations have been questioned. He has been derided as an egocentric grandstander who has managed to draw attention away from Labour’s woes and land the Tories with a by-election they could have done without just as they are looking like a government in waiting for the first time in 11 years.

However, the initial reaction just showed how out of touch those within the Westminster and media bubble often are. Many people, including Davis’s natural political opponents, regard his stand as praiseworthy. We have all become so cynical about the motivations of politicians that when one actually takes a principled position from which he has nothing obvious to gain personally, we are all nonplussed.

After initial horror in the Tory party high command, there is an attempt to make the best of it, with David Cameron promising to campaign on Davis’s behalf.

The Conservatives’ biggest worry is that at the next election they risk being accused of weakness by a Labour party with a track record of talking tough on crime and terrorism. The great danger for Labour, however, is that voters will conclude its record has been precisely that: all talk.

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