Voices: Labour’s proposals on crime appeal to our worst instincts

During the 1988 US presidential debates, Governor Mike Dukakis – an opponent of capital punishment – was asked whether he thought he would support the death penalty in the hypothetical scenario that his wife Kitty was raped and murdered.

Dukakis responded to the (frankly pretty shocking) question as follows: "No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime."

Dukakis was right, in principal – states that employ the death penalty don’t have lower rates of violent crime than those that don’t, and even if they did there’s no moral justification for ending a human life when there’s even a microscopic chance that the wrong person could be executed, as happens frequently – but that wasn’t the point of the question. What people wanted to know was whether Dukakis understood that regardless of one’s legal, political or moral stance, seeking revenge is a pretty normal human instinct when something terrible happens to us.

That debate sunk Dukakis, because people thought he sounded robotic – literally less human – for sticking to his principals when a deeply personal scenario was on the line. I’ve always thought that Dukakis should have said something along the lines of “Yes, of course I’d want that person dead. That’s why we make laws; to have something to fall back on when our human instinct takes over.” But hey, I’m no politician.

I was reminded of Dukakis when Labour MP Steven Reed announced that, under a Labour government, victims of antisocial behaviour would have some say in the manner of their offender’s punishment. It’s nothing nearly so drastic as the death penalty; the exact wording was that: “Victims will be able to select the unpaid work that offenders carry out, so victims will be seeing justice done.”

The policy is in keeping with the current trajectory of Labour, as a party that knows exactly what is wrong with the country and how to fix it, but knows that offering the necessary solutions won’t get them in to office in a nation run by the Daily Mail. So instead the party appeals to emotion, offering policies it knows will be largely ineffective, but satisfy the lizard parts of voters’ brains and thus maybe give it a chance to get a foot in the door come 2024.

Freedom of information requests show that nearly two million reports of antisocial behaviour went unattended over the past three years, Meanwhile, the number of community sentences halved over the last decade from 185,265 in 2011, to 72,021 in 2021. Those are figures that certainly need to be addressed – and more importantly, understood – but this new policy doesn’t seem remotely designed to do that.

I grew up on a council estate in a bad part of Salford, and I can tell you from first hand experience that little Jimmy isn’t less likely to mug you because you get to choose whether he picks up trash or paints over graffiti if he’s caught (if anything, you’d be less inclined to go for a severe punishment anyway, since little Jimmy’s brother knows everybody on the estate, and you don’t want to risk upsetting big Jimmy).

The point of this policy isn’t to lessen rates of crime; it’s to appeal to the worst part of the British voting base by allowing them to indulge in their bizarre little revenge fantasies. It’s to fuel the imaginations of people who got suckered in by shows like Benefits Street, so they can daydream about all those dirty poors finally paying for those crimes they’re probably committing. It’s a spiteful idea from a spiteful party to try and gain power in a country that runs on spite.

What’s so funny about the whole situation is that, as part of the same statement, Reed actually said something useful about crime and its root causes. It was this: “You can [lessen crime rates] by tackling the effects of the trauma that leads [people] to offending. By doing it, you make them much less likely to offend again. […] This whole science around trauma in early years didn’t exist in the early 1990s when Tony Blair came up with that phrase. So I want to update it for today.”

That’s actually a great, nuanced point that might actually have a net benefit for society, if implemented properly. But of course, he had to package it alongside the Little England equivalent of a Charles Bronson revenge fantasy to get it over home plate.

The problem with feeding these cruel impulses is that all they do is create an appetite for more cruelty. Sure, allowing victims some small say in the punishment of offenders can be framed as a perfectly reasonable – even noble – thing (I’m already anticipating some pushback from people who don’t really understand my point and take issue with my use of the word “cruel”), but it sets a precedent that the feelings of the individual are more important than a legal system built on consistency and fairness.

It should be informed by expertise, not emotion. Punishing somebody “bad” may make us feel good in the short term, but it’s a temporary high that can have a detrimental social impact if done incorrectly.

At the moment this country is addicted to those short-term highs, and it’s killing us. The role of a party like Labour is to step in and provide substantial solutions to our country’s problems, instead of enabling our worst impulses. But then, that isn’t how you get elected in the UK.