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Labour can stop drifting right on crime now

Under Starmer, the Labour party has taken up an increasingly punitive tone on crime and prisons, to court right-wing voters. The collapse of the Tory vote is an opportunity to stop talking tough and adopt a crime policy that would actually work. 

October 14 2022, 15.29pm

After the chaos of Liz Truss’ first weeks in office, more and more moderate Tories are expected to vote for Labour in the next election. Starmer has the opportunity to update some of his policies that were designed to win the Tory vote, such as the Labour’s thinking on crime. Yet he has said nothing to deviate from what Labour ministers have been saying over the last year. Wes Streeting, Vernon Coaker and Nick Thomas-Symonds have been recycling Tony Blair’s old mantra: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” So far the party has only given vague details about what this means in concrete policy, but it’s clear that the dual nature of the slogan affords Labour considerable scope. With one hand, it can promise to put money into youth clubs, prevention workers and community-based policing; with the other, promise “victim payback orders” (a reheated version of community service), harsher sentences and more criminalisation. It gives Keir Starmer – as it gave Tony Blair – a little something for the progressives and a little something for the retributionists. But can Labour have it both ways? Or will they have to eventually lean more heavily on one side of their slogan than the other? 

Since 2021, Labour’s tone has become significantly more punitive than preventative. On Twitter, they made the claim that  “Under the Conservatives, criminals have never had it so good.” I found this a particularly strange thing to say in a year when the number of suicides in UK prisons went up from 67 to 86 and the Tories had just announced they were going to create 10,000 new prison spaces. 

In early 2022, the shadow justice minister Steve Reed said he wanted to bring back ASBOs, continue to use private prisons, and name and shame people convicted of buying drugs  - a strategy Reed used in Brixton when he was the leader of Lambeth Council. This type of messaging was at first intended to put distance between the party and the old leadership, with Reed lamenting that Labour ‘cared more about criminals than victims’ under Corbyn. A few months later, after partygate, the shadow home minister Yvette Cooper said Johnson’s lack of respect for the rules reflected his party’s failure to prioritise tackling crime, and that’s why Labour made crime a key focus in the May local elections. 

Again, this move seems strange. Tough on crime policies always disproportionally affect those already marginalised. Why is the Labour party stating that because an Etonian broke the law in Downing Street, they stand ready to lock up more care leavers and people living in poverty? Partygate did make the public yearn for politicians with moral integrity, but that’s something quite different to punitive populism

As we get closer to a general election, I expect we will see Labour using every opportunity they can find to tell us that they will be tougher on crime than the Tories. It’s part of the imperative to “face the country and reconnect with voters” that Starmer spoke about after the by-election defeat in Hartlepool last year. But it’s a gamble as to whether it makes Labour more electable. New research suggests that red wall voters are open to reforming drug laws. Starmer may well win back some votes in the midlands and the north, but he will alienate the progressive wing of the party at the same time. Ultimately, he’s opting to play a dangerous away game: any amount of retribution Labour can promise to the public, the Conservatives can double without losing either sleep or votes. How big will the gains for Labour be, realistically? 

Even if this approach did help Labour win the election, there would be a price to pay, just as there was when the centre-left parties on both sides of the Atlantic in the 90s adopted this strategy. Today, in the US, the Democrats are still having to earn back trust after the 1994 crime bill that escalated mass incarceration. 

Likewise, David Blunkett is still trying to undo the damage today for introducing the human rights abuse that is the IPP sentence. When Tony Blair was elected in 1997 there were 61,100 people in prison. By the time Labour left office there were 84,700, which suggests they were tougher on crime than they were on its causes. The party needs to learn from the mistakes of the Blair years, not repeat them.

Steve Reed has said that Labour’s new approach is “based squarely on the priorities of the British people.” But maybe that’s the problem. Starmer is trying so desperately to please voters that he has neglected to show proper leadership. On the doorsteps of some working class households, he will be hearing people bemoan how prisons today are like ‘Bed and Breakfast.’ This line doesn’t so much reflect the state of our prisons so much as the state of our economy, where people are working full-time jobs and still need to skip meals in order to heat their homes. A populist hears those lamentations and promises not to be like the “soft-on-crime Conservative government”, but a real leader would emphasise ending the in-work poverty that can make some people resent prisoners for getting three meals a day.   

I first visited my brother in prison in 1993 and in the twenty five-years following, the prison population doubled. Today, It’s predicted to rise further from 79,580 to 98,500 in the next five years. This escalation has happened because we have had government after government, both Conservative and Labour, try to win votes on the cheap by appealing to the public’s reactionary cries for punishment, rather than pursuing evidence-based ideas. So far, all of the noises coming from Starmer, Reed and their ilk suggest they are here to do much the same. 


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