OPINION - The Tories should be truly terrified because New Labour is back
In Downing Street in the first decade of this century we used to tally how many times New Labour had been declared dead. Rarely did a week go by without an article suggesting that the once all-conquering New Labour had bitten the dust. For a long while, under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, it really had. But now New Labour is back. In a speech at the Institute for Government last week, Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said “30 years ago this year… Tony Blair said our party would be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. It was right then and it is right now.”
It has taken the Labour Party a long while for crime to become a strategic priority but it is the perfect campaign issue. A vigilant opposition is always searching for topics of genuine concern to the electorate on which the Government is failing and they have some clear credibility themselves. It is rare to find an issue on which all three tests are passed handsomely but the incidence of crime, and the terrible mess of the criminal justice system, is one such question.
Labour’s credentials to lead the argument are impeccable. The party’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is himself a former Director of Public Prosecutions. Cooper is a former distinguished chair of the Home Affairs select committee.
Since the Conservative Party came to power in 2010, arrests, prosecutions and convictions have all halved. Knife crime has gone up by 70 per cent since 2015. There have never been more court delays and vast numbers of victims find the system so slow and infuriating that they simply give up on it. Hardly any fraud cases, which account for half of all crime, are investigated. Of the 7,000 thefts that will take place in England and Wales today, only 180 will come to court. The prosecution rate has fallen to the point where just one in 20 crimes are now charged.
Meanwhile, plenty of poor behaviour is going unpunished. More than a third of the British population, some 20 million people, say they have witnessed anti-social behaviour. Criminal damage to shops, schools, leisure centres and businesses have increased by more than 30 per cent over the past year. There are 150 incidents every day.
Action against anti-social behaviour has collapsed as the police and council officers do not regard the powers they have as adequate. The powers vested in the police during the New Labour years were reduced in the 2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act. The neighbourhood policing system, which is supposed to be in charge, has been severely cut during the Conservative years. There are 6,000 fewer neighbourhood police officers than there were in 2015 and the number of Police and Community Support Officers has halved since 2010.
Labour is pledging to make it easier for the police to act to combat anti-social behaviour, which is intensely annoying and often frightening but which may fall short of the standard required for action under the criminal law. The new Respect Orders are designed to fill that gap. Following the lead recently set by Sir Mark Rowley, the new Met Commissioner, Labour will also add 13,000 neighbourhood policing posts. The plan outlined by Ms Cooper last week also included a full prevention and diversion programme, including new youth mentors, mandatory antisocial behaviour officers in every local authority area and a legal duty on Police and Crime Commissioners to create a specific antisocial behaviour strategy. Hot spot policing, which means flooding an area that is, for example, being used for dealing, will now be deployed to bring down any crime that involves drugs.
As part of the increased use of community sentences, Labour wants to get tough on fly-tippers and make offenders clear up the rubbish they have left. Steve Reed, the shadow Justice Secretary, has announced a plan for Community and Victim Payback Boards which would enforce unpaid work that should be done in recompense for the damage inflicted to the community by anti-social behaviour.
While Rishi Sunak is preoccupied with the mess of a Northern Ireland protocol and the rebellion of his self-regarding predecessor Boris Johnson, this emerging policy makes Labour sound serious on crime.
Once upon a time it was a bold move for Tony Blair, borrowing his famous slogan about being tough on the causes of crime from Gordon Brown, to seize the issue of crime from the Tories. Labour is now doing it again.