The New Labour crime policies of Cameron and Corbyn

Government and opposition are more comfortable with the failed criminal justice policies of the past than developing ones relevant to today, argues the Centre’s director Richard Garside

Richard Garside
Sunday, 28 February, 2016

One of the guilty secrets of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is its policies on policing. A party led by a consistent critic of the Blair/Brown New Labour period is championing an approach to policing that owes rather more to Tony Blair than it does to Tony Benn.

It’s an open secret of course, not one whispered in darkened corridors. Mr Corbyn and the Shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, have made no secret of their support for generous police budgets and their concern over falling police numbers.

The Police and Crime Commissioner elections in May this year offer voters in England and Wales ‘an opportunity to tell David Cameron what you think of his cuts to the Police’, a Labour press release declared last week.

Launching Labour’s Police and Crime Commissioner election campaign last Thursday in Birmingham, Mr Corbyn attacked the government for falls in police numbers. ‘It is disgraceful that when the police are more vital than ever to keeping people safe,’ he said,  ‘their numbers are being reduced’.

The previous day, Labour had chosen policing as one of its House of Commons opposition day debates. ‘Tory cuts... are putting people’s safety at risk’, Mr Burnham said. ‘Labour is prepared to stand up for the police and protect community safety’.

The government remains sensitive to charges that its police policies are undermining public safety. The current Labour tactics therefore make for good politics, albeit one more in keeping with the New Labour playbook than Mr Corbyn’s ‘new politics’.

But whatever the motives, an unquestioning defence of police budgets makes for bad policy-making. And as I have previously argued, buying into the argument that high police numbers are a cornerstone of a safe and secure society will make the kind of society Mr Corbyn would like to see harder to achieve.

The problem that besets contemporary policing is not that there are too few officers chasing too many criminals. It is that there are too many officers engaged in activities that have nothing to do with them.

In little over a decade, the police presence in schools has gone from occasional to routine. It is just one example of a police mission creep that now touches virtually every area of public service. In hospitals and schools; social work and probation work; event stewarding and incident management; you will likely come across a man or women with the power of arrest, doing a job that should be done by someone else, if it should be done at all.

Much currently being done by the police should be done by other public services better placed to do the work – health, education, social services for instance – or not done at all (routine police presence in schools is a good example).

If a Corbyn-led Labour Party is to make good on its social vision, this kind of thinking, rather than minor updates of failed New Labour policies, need to be in the mix.

The Prime Minister’s speech on prison reform earlier in the month drew an approving, if cautious, reaction from those who recognise that the system in England and Wales is in need of major humanitarian reform.

After more than five years in office, it is certainly good that the Prime Minister has noticed that our prisons are a national disgrace. His rejection of ever longer sentences, and of the ‘prisons as holiday camps’ trope, is also welcome.

Yet while violence, self-harm, suicide and squalid living conditions are nothing new in our prisons, they have all got worse since Mr Cameron has been in office. And as my colleagues Rebecca Roberts and Will McMahon pointed out in openDemocracy, the Prime Minister’s proposed reforms are about the expansion and privatisation of criminal justice, rather than being a serious attempt to address the problems in our criminal justice system, or society more widely.

The starting point of any coherent approach to our prisons is a clear commitment to a major reduction not just of prison numbers but of the criminal justice system more broadly. But this is precisely the kind of thinking ruled out by the Prime Minister.

There is ‘a strong case’ for some currently in prison, such as ‘the severely mentally ill, or women with small children, to be dealt with in a different way’, he said. ‘But this position of some – that we could somehow release tens of thousands of prisoners with no adverse consequences – is nonsense’.

Such a nonsensical position would presumably include that of the 1980s Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher, when the prison population in England and Wales was less than half the current levels.

For a leader of a party ostensibly committed to an ongoing rolling back of the state, Mr Cameron’s attachment to the unnecessary imprisonment of tens and thousands of fellow citizens, with all the economic and social costs implied, is a striking contradiction.

Like the Labour party’s approach to policing, Conservative policy on prisons remains haunted by the legacy of New Labour.

Until Labour and the Conservatives move on from the mistaken policies of past governments, the opportunity to develop criminal justice policies relevant to the challenges of today is likely to remain ungrasped.