Paul Foot

Life Under Labour 1

Law and Order

(April-May 1970)

From Life Under Labour, International Socialism (1st series), No.43, April-May 1970, pp.13-14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

As the general election approaches the fundamental dilemma of the Conservative Party intensifies: how, within the framework of a fully-employed economy, to make Conservative propaganda against a Government which has consistently carried out Conservative policies with a great deal more effect than the Conservative Party could have done. To ‘knock the unions’ is as unattractive to a future Tory Minister of Labour as it is inconsistent with 13 years’ Conservative co-operation with union leaders and six years’ Conservative opposition to Labour’s incomes policy on grounds of the need for ‘free collective bargaining’. To raise the question of increased immigration control is to remind the electorate that Labour has operated immigration control far more stringently than did the Conservatives, and is anyway to pave the way for further progress for Enoch Powell. On all other major areas of home and foreign policy the two Front Benches are agreed.

‘Law and Order’ – the unoriginal slogan which emerged from the Shadow Cabinet meeting at Selsden Park in January was devised primarily to solve this propaganda problem. It enabled men like Quintin Hogg, who had demonstrated scrupulous ‘responsibility’ on racial matters, to ring his bells once more and announce that ‘Mr Wilson is presiding over the biggest crime wave this century’. The slogan produced a quiver of joy in every Conservative committee room. If the Tories could not satisfy their supporters on getting rid of the blacks or cracking down on the reds, they would at least make sure that ‘suitable punishment’ was meted out to ‘thugs and agitators’.

The new Tory slogans, of course, had nothing to do with the facts. An article in the Sunday Times (March 1) showed that in England and Wales, although the numbers of ‘indictable crimes known to the police’ is rising year by year, the percentage annual increase is a great deal lower now than it was in the years from 1957 to 1964. In 1967, for instance, the percentage increase was less than 1 per cent and in the two years since it has hovered at 6 per cent (compared with 13 per cent in 1957; nearly 15 per cent in 1958; 9.5 per cent in 1960; 8 per cent in 1961; 10 per cent in 1962). The figures themselves are also inaccurate as a gauge of the crime rate. Crimes known to the police tend to rise and fall according to the efficiency of police records, and the crash programme of merger and computerisation which has been carried out in the police force during the years of Labour Government has of itself given a boost to the reporting of crimes.

An even more striking example of the fantasy of the law and order propaganda comes from Scotland. Fantastic frenzy was whipped up in the Scottish newspapers, notably the Scottish Daily Express and the Sunday Post, over the murder in January of two policemen by a former policeman turned bank robber. When the murderer was sentenced to 25 years in prison, the newspapers frothed with fury at the inadequacy of the sentence. Leading Conservative spokesmen in Glasgow, notably Baillie James Anderson, convenor of the city’s police committee, indicated that without stiffer sentences, capital punishment, and the arming of the police, the city could not cope with its crime wave.

The wave, however, is ebbing fast. In 1969 all crime in Glasgow dropped by 4.3 per cent (it had dropped by 4.8 per cent in 1968). Violent crime dropped by 10 per cent. The figures for all Scotland showed an overall decrease of some 5 per cent. These figures were tucked away on inside pages while the frenzied campaign for stiffer sentences was continued.

The statistical absurdities of the ‘law and order’ propaganda are, however, only part of a much wider authoritarian fallacy: that there is a direct relationship between deterrence and crime, and that the stricter the sentences the less the ‘unruly minority’ will break society’s ‘rules’.

It is in underwriting this fallacy that the Labour Government has helped to pave the way for the Tories’ law and order campaign. Labour’s Criminal Justice Act, steered through Parliament by the liberal, reforming Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, contains a host of provisions which strengthen the power of the police and the courts. Police powers of search, for instance, are greatly increased under the Act. Majority verdicts considerably improve the . chances of conviction (Eamonn Smullen, former Federation steward, at the Shell Mex strike in 1956 and Gerry Docherty were convicted in Leeds in February on very dubious evidence of conspiring to obtain arms for Southern Ireland – by a 10 to 2 jury verdict). Most important of all, people accused of assault, or of assaulting a policeman can no longer opt for trial by jury, but must be tried by a magistrate. Since magistrates will always believe a policeman, this means certain conviction for assault – perhaps the most common of the variety of charges brought against demonstrators.

Labour’s policy in the prisons has been even worse. All the Fabian pamphlets about the necessity of penal reform were torn up as soon as Lord Mountbatten wrote his report on prison security following the rash of highly-publicised prison escapes in 1965. Mountbatten’s recommendations were followed to the letter. Many of the smaller privileges and comforts so much looked forward to in prisons were instantly abolished. Instead were introduced the horrors of the maximum security wings and increased pounding by warders. The Parole Board, presided over by the ubiquitous Lord Hunt (who has failed to solve so many of Labour’s problems from Biafra to the B Specials) is a fraud and a farce. Under Labour, even more than previously, the prisons have been regarded as institutions for turning recidivists into vegetables and vice versa.

The welcome reform abolishing capital punishment has been the exception, not the rule. Everywhere else the Labour Government has blandly accepted one of the first rules of capitalist society that where people offend against the laws of property, the solution is to punish them into submission. As a result, the police have been encouraged by the granting of more arbitrary powers to behave in an increasingly arbitrary way. The full force of their venom has been directed, not so much against hardened criminals as against people whom they regard as ideologically unsound: blacks in Brixton; long-hairs in Folkestone; hippies in Piccadilly; the underground Press; and, of course, demonstrators. Already in 1970 a whole string of police prosecutions have been launched against these ‘elements’, almost all of them resulting in severe prison sentences. And with Labour attempting to drown Tory cries for Law and Order the situation is likely to deteriorate further.

Persecution in the courts, as trade unionists, demonstrators and Leftish editors have discovered to their cost in recent months in Italy and in France, is one of the most difficult forms of persecution to combat. It isolates militants from the people they represent and wraps the process in a shroud of legal mumbo jumbo. The liberal Press, so full of ‘the rights of the individual’ and ‘equality before the law’ in the safe years of the last two decades, has scuttled for safer fields. It is up to the socialist organisations to mobilise the fight against the increasing authoritarianism in the police and in the courts, whether encouraged by Tories or Labour.


Last updated on 28.2.2008