The politics of antisocial behaviour

This is an edited version of an article by Will McMahon that was published in Safer Society, No. 28, Spring 2006. In it Will argues that the 'antisocial behaviour' agenda will fail to heal the social wounds caused by three decades of growing poverty and inequality.

Will McMahon
Saturday, 01 April, 2006

There are many stories to tell about the government's antisocial behaviour strategy. One is of a policy process that was badly designed yet shrewdly implemented; another concerns the use of the strategy to gain political advantage; yet another is about a Home Office evidence base which is thin and orchestrated. There are others too. None of these stories make sense unless they are set in the context that drives them all, of fundamental changes in our society, its structures and relationships over a generation.

It is often thought that contemporary British political history is divided into 'BT' and 'AT' (before and after Thatcher); but a crucial moment was the social spending cuts implemented by the Labour government in 1977. From this moment, when Chancellor Denis Healy prefigured Mrs Thatcher's 'prudent housewife' election spin by arguing that 'we cannot spend more than we earn', there was a secular increase in poverty and inequality, and the growth of the divided society we know today.

Despite the fizzy rhetoric around social exclusion, the last 30 years have created a bedrock of poverty and inequality that has in essence remained unexcavated by recent government policy. By any measure, Blairism has only cream-skimmed poverty rates while inequality has increased. Of course many children have been lifted just above the poverty line, but over 80 per cent of the 1997 base are still below it as we approach year nine of New Labour. In total, well over 10 million people still live in poverty, and many millions more are bumping along above the poverty line. As a nation we have accumulated a personal debt burden, driven by all sorts of choice agendas, of over one trillion pounds. Such debts have produced a modern form of indentured labour, with millions indentured to banks and finance companies instead of feudal lords.

This context is crucial, not because there is a metric relationship between poverty and bad behaviour, or because a generation of systemic deprivation has created antisocial cultures, but because, as Richard Wilkinson has shown in his recent work The Impact of Inequality, societies that are affluent can be social failures, especially, as in Britain, when there are growing inequalities that create a more hostile and less sociable nation for all of us.

Context is crucial because if a government is going to ask people to show respect and responsibility towards one another, and aim this message at the poor, it is important that those at the bottom of the pile feel they have a government that is respectful and responsible towards them, understands their discontent, and does not see them as merely future workers, past workers or those who should be at work, as this government often gives the impression of doing.

Just hanging around

While mainstream antisocial behaviour rhetoric focuses on children and teenagers, the government's own data tells a different story. The government does not often mention that the biggest problem in many neighbourhoods is dumped, badly-parked or speeding cars, and not the hooded yob or teenage tearaway. Only a few steps are needed to work out how this might be a greater problem in poorer areas - especially where young people are hanging around on narrower streets. The dominant 'car culture' may itself be antisocial, but the impact of inequality is to make all aspects of it register more clearly in poorer neighbourhoods.

Similarly, noise complaints might be a marker of social inequality. As Home Office researcher Martin Wood argues, people's experience of noisy neighbours 'may reflect differences in the type and density of accommodation between areas'. In other words, it is income that matters in your experience of noise rather than differences in behaviour. Added to that, there is the explosion in demand for bare flooring in the 1990s, the increase in capacity and fall in price of domestic sound-systems, and the conversion of large houses to flats. One might conclude that people are not behaving any differently than they have in the past, but there are new challenges to urban living that have to be negotiated rather than caricatured as 'antisocial behaviour'. By focusing attention on people who are 'noisy' rather than the conditions in which people are living, 'anti-social behaviour' is creating a blame culture rather than a problem-solving one.

Compare these often very real problems (which might well be experienced as antisocial by those who suffer from them) with the journalists' and politicians' favourite: young people 'hanging around'. Research shows that the public wrongly believe that young people are responsible for the majority of crime (in fact it is around 12 per cent of known crime). Many people thus believe that when they see young people hanging around on the street, they are up to no good. 'Young people hanging around' is a key measure of 'antisocial behaviour' in the 'problems in your area' module in the British Crime Survey. Poor areas tend to be more densely populated, with more crowded homes and fewer gardens a head. Pavements are narrower and young people have less disposable income to keep them occupied.

Given the above factors, the stage is set for many reports of 'anti-social behaviour' that is simply young people hanging around or even, God help us, 'playing football'. 'Young people hanging around' is a pernicious category that should be dropped from the BCS because it is too subject to the triumph of prejudice over real experience. It is a prejudice, however, that the government is content to reinforce to sustain the hyperbolic level of its 'antisocial behaviour' campaign. Recent Joseph Rowntree research by Andrew Millie and others shows that those surveyed about antisocial behaviour 'clearly associated the government's approach to antisocial behaviour with problems of disorder, specifically related to young people'. This toxic mixture of institutionalised intolerance and public predisposition does not bode well for the government's much-vaunted communities agenda.

This is not to say that no young people ever engage in antisocial acts, or that some people do not drive their cars dangerously or park then badly or dump them in poor areas, or that there are not some truly noisy neighbours who should have their sound systems confiscated. But overwhelmingly, the mass of such complaints are structured by a context of inequality and poverty rather than a mass outbreak of wickedness by those who have no respect. Affluent teenagers 'hanging around' at the local pony club, stockbrokers playing heavy metal on their home stereo systems in their large detached house, or aristocrats tearing around the country estates are all indulging in behaviour that in other contexts would be deemed antisocial. The fact that it is not generally treated as such highlights the fundamental importance of social processes in mediating or understanding behaviours and their impacts. It is the inequality that matters, not the pathology, and strategies that attempt to negotiate with the Home Office about how to manage micro-behaviours will only serve to reinforce the Government's 'deserving and undeserving' mindset and distract attention from a much bigger picture.

'Soft on yobs'

In 1997 the opportunity existed for a broad and inclusive cultural and economic strategy that would, over time, have healed the damage done in many communities by a society that had privileged ambition and competition amidst growing poverty and inequality. Instead, the dominant narrative is about fear of 'antisocial behaviour', accompanied by an out-of-control spiral of clampdown legislation.

The government has also used the 'antisocial behaviour' message to party political advantage. Having defeated the Tories on law and order during the 1990s, the Labour Party has pummelled the Liberal Democrats on 'antisocial behaviour' in election after election following their opposition to parts of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. In the September 2004 Hartlepool by-election, Labour charged the Liberal Democrat candidate of being 'soft on drugs', 'soft on yobs' and 'soft on crime'. By the 2005 general election campaign, the Liberal Democrats had adopted a 'tough liberalism' agenda. It is perhaps no accident that the Respect Action Plan has a three-month consultation period that runs up to the May 2006 metropolitan elections.

In ideological terms, the antisocial behaviour strategy and the new Respect campaign have proved important in deflecting criticism of Labour's failed social policies, crystallised in the one-dimensional thinking of 'hard-working families' versus the 'lawless minority'. The government's 'white hat/black hat' view that produced the blue-sky idea of 'community sheriffs' in the summer of 2005 fails to meet the complexity of the problems that people face - in particular, the fact that many of those who are said to commit 'antisocial behaviour' are also victims. It has placed all these problems under the roof of criminal justice because to look at broader causes reflects back as a self-criticism that New Labour's 'things can only get better' narrative cannot contain.

The usual suspects

Despite these complexities, the government has been happy to use the rising number of Asbos to hail the success of its strategy. The impact on the vulnerable and the eccentric - the collateral damage of the Asbo strategy - has been well documented elsewhere, but less well known is how the rise in Asbo numbers was produced by the introduction of the criminal Asbo (Crasbo) in the Police Reform Act 2002. The Crasbo is an entirely different beast to its progenitor, and the public have been subject to a governmental sleight of hand. The Asbo was designed for intimidating neighbours against whom it was hard to get evidence except through state-employed witnesses. The Crasbo - which now makes up over 70 per cent of Asbos - is given at court, usually without opposition, to someone who has been convicted of a crime under the rules of evidence. With a possible five-year sentence for breach (and this can mean simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time), the government has effectively designed a personal criminal justice system for those they believe to be the usual suspects. In other words, this is bypassing due process in an attempt to keep the 'usual suspects' under control.

The rise of the Crasbo has added to the impression that the overall strategy is a good thing. If a local newspaper carries a story of a genuinely violent and frightening man getting an Asbo, then surely this is copper-bottomed evidence that it works. The Home Office strategy relies on such visceral feelings as its use of the evidence base, such as it is, does not pass serious scrutiny. One leading academic described antisocial behaviour policy as 'an evidence-free zone' as late as December 2004. Despite press reports to the contrary, not much has changed since then, although we should note Louise Casey's comment addressed to Home Office Research, Development and Statistics researchers in her now legendary 'come to work pissed' speech at a Home Office conference in summer 2005: 'I need all of my colleagues in RDS in my corner.'

Not surprisingly, therefore, the category 'antisocial behaviour' is largely vacuous. As West Midlands Chief Inspector Paul Scott Lee suggested at a parliamentary meeting in 2005, it is so broad as to be 'meaningless to most of us'. The inclusion, amongst other things, of 'indecent exposure' and 'cycling on footpaths' as measures of 'antisocial behaviour' underscores his point. The power of the concept of antisocial behaviour lies not in its analytical clarity, which is conspicuously lacking, but in its flexibility. It mobilises personal fears - for example, of bullying at school or intimidation elsewhere - which reach back into childhood, as well as having an immediate reference to the very different things that individuals find intolerable in contemporary society. Thus, at a political level, it has broad appeal.

Deep social wounds

Despite all these problems, criticism of the antisocial behaviour strategy remains muted at best. In my view, this is because the anxiety about keeping the Conservatives out of power has produced a Stockholm Syndrome of progressive thought amongst policy thinkers, non-governmental service deliverers and campaigning organisations about the contemporary significance of poverty and inequality. Put simply, many have chosen to believe that things have got better, because a more unbearable thought is that things may just have stayed the same.

The inability of New Labour's hostages to offer a rounded critique has generated a mass cognitive dissonance about poverty and inequality and the failure of government policies to address them. Hence the faith invested in Sure Start, the New Deal for Communities and other such targeted non-universal strategies. Yet recent early evaluation of these flagship schemes for shoring up deprived areas in the face of a global economy shows, overall, only a negative or a marginal impact.

This dissonance is expressed by those who have been central to Number 10's strategic thinking. For example, Geoff Mulgan opened a recent Guardian article on neighbourliness with the sentence: 'Britain is a largely contented society.' This is not quite 'you have never had it so good', but in the context of mass poverty, growing inequality and over four million people not employed due to sickness or joblessness, it is as definitive. Yet as data on mental health shows, it is most definitively wrong.

Thus, nine years on, is it not the government that should be politically vulnerable? By its own count of its own meaningless category, there are at least 15 million acts of 'antisocial behaviour' a year, yet only 100,000 cases were dealt with in the 12 months before October 2004 - so ineffective a response that it achieves the remarkable feat of making even the traditional criminal system look effective.

Debate has been stifled by the fear of appearing to be soft on crime; the 'common sense' personal appeal of 'anti-social behaviour' (who has not been a victim?); and the dressing-up of various public services, such as keeping local environments clean, as a redistribution of safety (in lieu of Labour councils being able to redistribute anything else). The mobilisation of the victims' agenda has played a crucial role in this process. Yet as David Blunkett argued in his 2001 book Politics and Progress: 'We need to appreciate the scale of the social disaster brought about by the neo-liberal period.' This appreciation needs to acknowledge the deep social wounds caused by three decades of growing poverty and inequality, and go beyond a cauterising politics of behaviour. Unfortunately, this is precisely the challenge that the 'antisocial behaviour' agenda fails to meet.