Tuesday, 12 May 2009

New crimes and new causes of crime

Gordon Brown was probably not making a symbolic protest about standards of European football refereeing by giving his keynote speech on crime at a conference held at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge football ground today. Nor, I am sure, endorsing the anti-social behaviour shown by Chelsea's aggrieved megastars after their unlucky defeat.

Gordon Brown has not shown an enormous interest in criminal justice issues since reportedly coining the 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime' soundbite summary of New Labour's communitarianism with which shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair first rose to public prominence around the time of the murder of toddler Jamie Bulger in the mid-1990s.

Much of the today's speech was in the New Labour renewed mould - there were new kinds of crime and new causes of crime to be addressed.

"We face new kinds of crime - especially knife crime, organised crime, e-crime and identity theft - and now of course the new challenge of preventing what happened in previous recessions, where crimes like burglary and robbery went up.

We face new causes of crime, including binge drinking, youth gangs and problem families. And we need new ways of responding - for government, the police, courts, local authorities and communities themselves."

For all of its activism on various fronts, the speech perhaps lacked a clear theme, much of it being along more generic 'public service modernisation' lines. (It was a 'Crime & Disorder Reduction Partnership' conference).

Brown was proud though not complacent that crime had fallen (which was good) but the (rising) fear of crime mattered too. What lies behind that paradox was not explored. The response would be ever more energy and governmental activism, once again intended to reassure the public, and which there is now some evidence from the last decade that some of this may be having something of the opposite effect.

More community involvement is another possible approach. Involving communities in how seized assets could be used could help to symbolise this, but the broader idea of restorative justice was not as central to today's speech as it might have been.

If tough on crime and its causes made a lot of political sense, Labour's weakness in this area is that its policies on 'crime' and on 'causes' have remained rather too separated. A broader rethinking of criminal justice policy which looks hard at the causes of reoffending, why rehabilitation works or fails, and how to win public support for a more effective approach has occasionally been canvassed even by a home secretary or two, but perhaps remains out of reach when it comes to public politics.

It would not be politically straightforward, perhaps particularly for a government of the centre-left. But there remains and a 'bleeding wallet liberalism' which asks why we do not get better returns from the public money we currently put into criminal justice.

PS: Stuart and others who have highlighted the 'kettling' issue may note the (rather vague) endorsement of the need for public debate about the policing of large protests:

"All of us, and I know this includes the overwhelming majority of police officers themselves, were shocked to see the footage of those incidents during the G20.

We should of course remember that policing large protests is difficult and dangerous. I believe it is healthy to have a public debate about how this difficult task can be carried out"


Zio Bastone said...

‘Tough on crime…’ was used first, I think, in ’92, to Conference. (The Bulger murder came after.) Despite its reference to the ‘causes’ of crime, the obvious implication was that punishment would be condign, ie ‘tough’, and that New Labour would no longer be the softies. As a piece of repositioning it imitated (after a little help from Procter & Gamble) Clinton’s ‘New Democrat’ strategy following Republican attacks on Dukakis in ‘88 over the Willie Horton case.

And this history is important precisely because it demonstrates, as with the later ‘education, education, education’ nonsense, how New Labour was, right from the very beginning, much more interested in importing salesmanship from abroad than in policy needs at home.

Calix said...

Very interesting blog and response.

Yes, it's easy to say 'tough on crime' especailly after the Bulgar case (as Zio points out) which so shocked the public. Somehow the other bit of the slogan about the causes has been neglected.

In fact, prison is a hugely wasteful revolving door with re-offending rates over 70%. In the current climate of cutting back, surely this should be looked at again and constructive approaches to real rehabiliation be properly considered as Sunder says. At least they've shelved Titan prisons for the time being.

In the light of the exspenses row, where MPs are compared to benefit cheats, perhaps MPs might be less punitive for its own sake?

However, we shouldn't reform solely for the economic cost - the social cost is what really matters.

Stuart White said...

The words on protest policing are a little bit encouraging. One other statement I've seen from someone in the government - a letter from a Home Office minister to the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee - was much less encouraging.