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International Socialism, Spring 1994


Iain Ferguson

Containing the crisis: crime and the Tories


From International Socialism 2:62, Spring 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The ‘crusade against crime’

Two year old James Bulger wandered off from his mother in a Liverpool shopping mall on 12 February 1993. Over the next few minutes security cameras captured on video both the harrowing sight of James being led by the hand out of the mall by two ten year old boys and his mother’s frantic efforts to find him. Two days later the badly beaten body of the toddler was found on a railway line two miles away. The ten year old boys were later charged and convicted with his murder.

The popular reaction to that murder was, on the one hand, a widespread sense of outrage that such things should happen and, on the other, a sense of fear and insecurity. If small children are not even safe in shopping centres with their parents then where are they safe?

By any criteria, the circumstances of James’s death were, thankfully, highly unusual. There has been no increase in the deaths of young children in recent years and the number of under fives killed by strangers (as opposed to those who die within the family) remains at one a year. [1] In that sense, the only real conclusion to be drawn from James Bulger’s tragic death was that no general conclusions could be drawn from it.

Nevertheless, only days later, in an interview with the Mail on Sunday, John Major cynically used James’s death and the horror it had aroused to launch a new ‘crusade against crime’. It was time, declared Major, for the public to ‘put the victim before the criminal’, time to ‘understand a little less and condemn a little more’.

The centrepiece of that crusade was unveiled two weeks later by Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke when he announced (on the day after James Bulger’s funeral) the setting up of a national network of ‘secure training centres’ to detain ‘persistent 12 to 15 year old offenders’. [2] The Tories’ new crusade continued through 1993 and reached its climax at the Tory party conference in Blackpool in October when the new Home Secretary, Michael Howard, in what was generally agreed to be the most coercive law and order package for over a decade, announced 27 measures which included the return of approved schools, electronic tagging, the removal of the right to silence, limitations of the right to bail and of the right to trial by jury. What was most striking about Howard’s speech was his insistence that ‘prison works’, in direct contrast to the views not only of his seven predecessors as Home Secretary (and a mass of Home Office research) but also of Margaret Thatcher who only three years ago endorsed a white paper which stated that prisons were ‘an expensive way of making bad people worse’. [3]]

Eighteen out of the 27 proposals announced by Howard last October have now been incorporated into the Criminal Justice Bill presently going through parliament. In part, this change of policy has to be understood as a response to what is for the Tories the highly embarrassing failure of the criminal justice system after 14 years of Conservative rule.

The Tories have traditionally prided themselves on being the party of law and order. By February 1993, however, that claim was looking increasingly hollow. Every element of the criminal justice system was apparently in a state of crisis. Crime figures were higher than ever before; police detection rates were actually falling despite continuing high levels of expenditure; a whole string of well publicised court cases exposed the police officers involved as brutal and corrupt; the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Judge Steven Tumin, appeared on television almost nightly to warn of the inevitability of more riots unless urgent action was taken to combat overcrowding; and hallowed concepts of ‘the rule of law’ and ‘the independence of the judiciary’ had been exposed as a sham by a string of miscarriages of justice, including the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four cases.

Gallup polls in January 1993 showed a 14 percent decline in confidence in the legal system and a 10 percent decline in confidence in the police. These must have given the Tories cause for concern, indicating a worrying decline in the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Even more important, however, was the second factor which underlay the Tories’ crusade – the political and economic context in which these figures appeared.

Since their general election victory in April 1992 a catalogue of disasters had befallen the Tories, leading them into a series of U-turns – most notably over devaluation of the pound on leaving the ERM and the retreat, albeit temporary, on the pit closure programme in October 1992 in the face of mass popular protest. By February, when the death of James Bulger took place, the polls were showing a deeply unpopular government hanging on by its fingernails. The Bulger case and the feeling it aroused added to the general impression of weakness and incompetence, particularly in an area which the Tories had always regarded as their strongest. At the same time – and this is crucial to the an understanding of the shift in policy – it also provided the Tories with an opportunity to shift the blame for the crisis onto young offenders, lone parents, social workers and others.

The central argument of this article will be that the current law and order campaign can only be understood as an attempt to resolve the economic, political and ideological crisis from which the Tories have been unable to extricate themselves since withdrawal from the ERM, at the expense of some of the weakest, most oppressed sections of society. While the crisis in the criminal justice system is one important element of this crisis, by itself it does not explain the strategy which the government is now pursuing.

In developing this argument I shall look at some of the key elements of the present crisis in law and order: the apparently rising crime figures, particularly in relation to young offenders; the alleged relationship between crime and the family; the role of the police and the rationale underlying the Sheehy Report; the crisis in the prisons. [4]

The rise in crime: fact or moral panic?

’Politicians wanting to induce panic usually quote recorded crime figures’, the Economist noted recently, which is one reason why crime statistics have to be treated with considerable caution. [5] According to officially recorded crime figures, there has been a 116 percent increase in recorded crime since 1980. [6] It is this figure which has been quoted by Howard and the Tory press (as well as Labour’s Tony Blair!) to justify the need to ‘get tough’ on crime. But this figure is misleading in several respects.

Firstly, random surveys periodically taken by the Home Office of 11,000 people in England and Wales (and 5,000 in Scotland), known as the British Crime Survey, suggest that while the overall number of crimes committed is approximately three times the recorded level, the rate of increase between 1981 and 1991 is less than half of that suggested by the official figures. [7] There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy between the two sets of figures. As the Economist has pointed out:

A large cause of the rise in recorded crime may simply be more diligent recording ... Insurance policies have given property owners an incentive to report each theft or even to report thefts that do not occur. Telephones make reporting easier. More policemen (their numbers rose by 6 percent in 1981–91) means more time for recording [8]

A further important factor is that police clear-up rates are so poor (with only 26 percent of property crimes being solved) that many people simply see little point in reporting crimes.

Secondly, while the Home Office figures released in April 1993 show that the number of crimes committed has continued to rise, compared with previous years there has in fact been a noticeable decline in the rate of increase – down from 17 percent and 16 percent in the previous two years to 6 percent in 1992.

Thirdly, when placed in an international context, Britain’s crime rate is about average for industrialised countries. Indeed, Britain has a worse than average record for minor crime and a better than average record for serious crime. Thus in a survey of 20 developed countries England and Wales rank twelfth for assaults, sixth for burglaries and third for stealing from cars. [9]

What these figures suggest is that there has been a considerable increase in crime (especially property crime) but, firstly, the increase is far less than the officially recorded figures indicate and, secondly, the rate of increase is slowing. This is not to minimise the fear and distress of the victims of burglaries – who, like the burglars themselves, are usually working class – but neither should the Tories be permitted to exploit that distress to justify their attacks on civil liberties. Few things better illustrate the hypocrisy of the Tories in this area than the fact that, in the same week that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill was introduced into parliament, Michael Howard cut back on funding for victim support schemes!

If the general crime figures do not appear to justify Howard’s measures, then perhaps the crime rates for the two types of offenders singled out by Howard, young offenders and bail offenders, present a different picture. In fact, far from juvenile crime rising, the figures show that the number of known young offenders actually fell by 17 percent, between 1981 and 1991. [10] The absurdity of Howard’s claim that the nation is being terrorised by hordes of tiny criminals is best demonstrated by the fact that his new network of private borstals for 12 to 14 year olds will hold a grand national total of 200 children – at a cost of £100 million to set up and £30 million a year to run! [11]

Ironically, the policy of cautioning rather than locking up young offenders is one of the few Tory policies that has actually worked. It was introduced in the mid-1980s after mountains of research (most of it from the Home Office itself) highlighted the dismal fact that 80 percent of those who served in young offenders’ institutions re-offended within two years. Home Office research since has shown lower reconviction rates for community sentences and cautioning. [12] Now these institutions, which had closed or fallen into disuse since the 1980s, are to be reopened with an even greater (and more futile) emphasis on ‘security’ and ‘discipline’.

Crime and the family

The second strand in the Tories’ law and order offensive has been to attempt to link the alleged rise in crime to the decline of the traditional two parent family and the absence of male role models within single parent families. At the Tory party conference Howard took this argument to new depths, lamenting the passing of the stigma surrounding illegitimacy and speaking warmly of a New Jersey scheme under which single mothers lose benefit if they have second or third children. Howard later developed his ‘theory’ to suggest that the roots of the present crime problem lay in the absence of fathers during the Second World War!

Such crude scapegoating of one of the most oppressed groups in society hardly deserves a response. But what are the facts? Is there a link between crime and family breakdown?

Attempts to show the extent to which there is a relationship between marital breakdown and delinquency have been, in the words of a recent review of the literature, Crime and the Family, ‘a rich source of confusion’. One exhaustive study of the literature by Michael Rutter and Henri Giller concluded that such a link is ‘remarkably difficult to determine’ – not least because, while it is true that both crime and divorce rates have been rising rapidly through the 1960s and 1970s, the former continued to rise in the 1980s while the latter reached a plateau. [13] Rutter and Giller, however, found no consistent evidence that children in families broken by divorce were more deviant than those who had suffered bereavement. Where they did find a greater likelihood of delinquent behaviour following divorce they suggested that it is the discord surrounding separation rather than the divorce itself that explains the links: ‘In the long term [meaning over several years] most families are better off with divorce than with unabating discord and quarrelling but things frequently get worse before they get better’. [14]

If the Tories were serious about preventing young people falling into delinquent behaviour during this period then one answer would be to set up a nationwide system of accessible conciliation services to help parents through the trauma of divorce. Unsurprisingly, this did not feature in Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard’s 27 points for reducing crime in his speech at the Tory party conference.

In respect of lone parent families, the conclusion of the authors of the Crime and the Family report cited above is that, ‘The widely held assumption that two parents are automatically a better safeguard against delinquency is not supported by the evidence.’ They cite several studies from both Britain and the US which emphasise that family structure is less important than the quality of care and supervision that parents are able to provide. The 1985 Home Office self-report survey of 14- and 15-year-olds, for example, found no evidence that one parent families were ‘criminogenic’. Similarly, ‘American research also demonstrates that homes which are intact but unhappy and neglectful are more likely to produce delinquents than those which are “broken” but where the children are consistently nurtured and loved.’ [15]

What is true, however, is that for the majority of people in Britain today to be a member of a lone parent family means to live in poverty. At any one time, seven out of ten lone parents, including nine out of ten single (never married) mothers, are in receipt of income support. Far from lone parenthood being a passport to the good life, as speaker after speaker at the Tory party conference suggested, the reality for many lone parents is emotional stress, financial worries, inadequate housing and social isolation. It would be strange indeed if this did not affect the quality of relationships between parents and children or affect parents’ ability to monitor their children’s behaviour.

It is such grinding poverty, rather than the absence of a father figure, which increases the likelihood of children from both lone parent and poor two parent families being involved in criminal activity. The authors of Crime and the Family concluded that ‘children from low income, working-class families are more likely to become delinquent than those from comfortable, middle class homes. That much emerges from official crime figures and from the longitudinal research’.

To assert such a link between youth crime and poverty is not to dispute the importance of effective parenting, or to reject the conclusion of major studies such as the Newcastle 1,000 Family Study that ‘good parenting protects against the acquisition of a criminal record’. [16] Rather it is to suggest, firstly, that such ‘good parenting’ does not take place in a vacuum. In the words of Crime and the Family, ‘there is a prima facie case for regarding economic and environmental deprivation as powerful stress factors which conspire to make it more difficult to be an effective parent’. Secondly, it is often the poor quality of substitute care, rather than family break up in itself, that results in young people becoming involved in criminal activities. The fact that 26 percent of all those in prison have spent time in local authority care, for example, says much more about the standard of residential child care in this country than about the impact of divorce. [17]

If Howard were serious about improving the quality of life of children in both lone parent and two parent families and so reducing delinquent behaviour then there are a whole range of measures which he could implement, including the extension of pre-school education, good quality and affordable child care to allow parents to work and parenting skills training courses for young single mothers. All of these would ease the strain on parents and, as Claus Moser argued in his report on preschool education, would cost far less than the new and utterly wasteful system of mini-prisons.

In fact, as a confidential report leaked to the Guardian has shown, Michael Howard and the cabinet were aware prior to Tory conference in October that there was no evidence either that young women become lone parents to jump the housing queue, as social security minister Peter Lilley alleged, or of a particular link between crime and lone parent families. [18] This was a lie propagated with the sole purpose of diverting attention away from the failure of their policies on crime and, more fundamentally, the Tories’ economic failures by the scapegoating of one of the most oppressed groups in society.

The social causes of crime

That the Tories should seek to place the blame for the rise in crime on factors such as poor parenting and wicked individuals rather than on poverty and unemployment should come as no surprise. This is, after all, according to one leading Tory backbencher commenting on Howard’s conference speech, ‘showing real political nous’. [19] But where has been the voice of those who claim to speak for the poor and the dispossessed? What counter-explanations has the Labour Party put forward?

While historically the commitment of the Labour Party in government to law and order has often matched that of the Tories, Labour ideology about crime has usually involved an emphasis on ‘the community’ both to suggest a different style of policing and as the context for a range of punishments – including probation and community service orders-that were seen as more humane than custody. [20] Whatever the limitations of such approaches, underpinning them was some recognition of the social factors that give rise to crime. In their response to the death of James Bulger, however, Labour’s two leading spokesmen on the issue seized the opportunity to distance themselves from such arguments. Thus Tony Blair, shadow Home Secretary, issued ‘a new appeal to moral values that stress individual duties and responsibilities as well as rights’. [21] David Blunkett, shadow health secretary and former left wing leader of Sheffield City Council, went further by calling for ‘an end to paternalistic and well meaning indulgence of the subculture of thuggery, noise, nuisance and anti-social behaviour’ and for the introduction of nine months community service for all 16 to 21 year olds! [22]

This is the language of the Tory right. While the latter half of Blair’s couplet of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ suggests some continuity with Labour’s previous policy and may placate those concerned at the direction in which ‘modernisers’ within the leadership are taking the party, in practice it is the new ‘toughness on crime’ that has been emphasised. What are the factors underlying this shift?

Above all it is electoral considerations, based on the assumption that Liberal Democrat supporters and moderate Tories will support a tough line on law and order, which are the main factors driving the change. In this sense, the change of policy represents a victory for so called ‘modernisers’ such as Blair who assume that it is only through abandoning any vestige of socialism that Labour can win elections. Feeding that view is the interpretation of Bill Clinton’s victory in the 1992 US presidential election on the basis of a campaign which combined a very limited programme of social reforms with a tough stance on law and order. Clinton was, for example, quick to join George Bush in condemning the LA riots of that year. [23]

While such a shift in policy may bring short term gains in the polls, in the longer term it is both dangerous and shortsighted. The effect of Labour’s intervention has been to allow the whole debate on law and order to be moved further into territory which can only benefit the Tories and the far right. At the same time, opinion polls conducted in January of this year suggest that support for ‘tough minded’ approaches to law and order is far lower than Blair’s strategy assumes. [24]

Reinforcing the political considerations underlying the new policy has been the ideological cover provided by an influential group of self styled ‘left realist’ criminologists who have over the past few years set themselves the task of developing a ‘realistic’ law and order policy for a future Labour government.

Prominent among this group is Jock Young, best known for his contribution to the development in the 1970s of a new, critical criminology. This provided generations of sociology students with an alternative to the positivist criminology dominant in the 1950s and 1960s, with its emphasis on ‘criminal behaviour’ and its unquestioning support of the existing order. In a sad example of the political and intellectual decline which affected so much of the academic left in the 1980s, Young, who could write in 1975 that ‘the task [of the radical criminologist] is not to help the courts to work, not to design better prisons. The problems of social control are problems for those who want to control existing arrangements’, [25] could argue ten years later that ‘it is in the interests of working class people that crime is controlled and it is in their interests that the agencies of the state deal with crimes in a just and effective fashion.’ [26]

The basis of this argument originates in the ‘founding text of left realism’, What is to be done about law and order? first published in 1984. [27] Here Young and his co-thinker John Lea argue that the left (by which they mean both radical criminologists and the Labour Party) neglected the problem of crime by interpreting law and order debates simply as moral panics and failed to give due weight to the disruptive impact of crime on the lives of working class people. While there may well be some truth in this, from this starting point Young and Lea go on to paint a picture of street crime as dwarfing all other social problems in both social and moral significance. Contrasting this form of crime with the activities of multinational companies which pollute the environment, for example, they argue that:

It is not merely that the causes of such a problem are less transparent than say an incident of street crime. They surely are; but of greater relevance and of qualitatively different moral impact is the naked intention of theft and crime against the person ... malice is even more intentional in street crime than in war because its individualism produces a collapse of human solidarity; it represents the palpable breakdown of the social order, or the rampant individualism of a Hobbesian war of all against all. [28]

This is the Tory language of ‘choice’. Granted that crime does have a disruptive effect on working class communities, [29] if such crimes could be explained as a product of unemployment and poverty, then the finger of blame would be pointed not at those who carry out these acts but at those who create the social conditions in which they flourish. In fact, having established that there are many people who are poor who are nevertheless law abiding and that unemployment in the 1930s did not lead to a massive increase in crime, they are emphatic in concluding that ‘poverty does not cause crime’ and that ‘the notion that unemployment leads to crime is contradicted by the existence of unemployed groups with very low crime rates’. [30]

Finally, in a wholesale rejection of the body of thought developed by radical criminologists in the 1970s, Lea and Young argue that, in the face of this ‘war of all against all’ conducted by young offenders (whom they label as ‘rampant anti-working class egoists’), the only solution lies with the rule of law and a more accountable police force:

The class society which creates social disorganisation also creates its partial palliative. Law not only involves ruling class domination: it also has a legitimate component to it, in terms of the protection of working class interest ... [31]

The need is surely for more effective police protection responsive to the needs of the working class and the groups within it. [32]

The role of the police in protecting working class people from crime will be considered in the next section. But what of the argument that poverty does not lead to crime, that there is no link between unemployment and criminal activity?

Three recent major studies show how hollow this claim is. The first of these, carried out by David Dickinson, a Cambridge economist, and published in January of this year, demonstrated that during the 1980s the number of burglaries followed the movements in young male unemployment almost exactly. Until now, while Home Office research has shown a clear link between crime and personal consumption, the link with unemployment has been less clear. By contrast, this new study argues that the relationship between unemployment and crime emerges in the 1970s and 1980s, when unemployment first rose to one million and then to more than three million. When joblessness fell in the boom years of the late 1980s, so did the number of criminal offences, but with renewed recession overall crime soared. [33]

A second study of 30,000 offenders, commissioned by the Association of Chief Officers of Probation (ACPO) and also published in January, found that only one in five offenders in the first half of 1993 was in recognised paid employment. [34] Finally, a recent study of 20,000 homes in Watford, Hertfordshire, which included extensive interviews with burglars, reached similar conclusions, finding that the majority of burglaries are carried out to pay debts – four times as many as to fund drug or alcohol habits. [35]

To assert such a link between crime and unemployment is not, as Young and Lea imply, to treat people as automatons or to suggest that people who become unemployed will inevitably become involved in criminal activity. Rather, it is to recognise, in the words of a representative of the ACPO, that ‘many people are struggling to make sense of their lives. Poverty and deprivation easily lead to alienation, to young people feeling that they have nothing to lose by taking the risk of offending. [36] That sense of alienation can only be increased when the Labour Party and its intellectual hangers on not only fail to challenge the scapegoating of lone parents and young offenders but collude in it by demanding that the government be ‘tougher’ on crime.

The police and Sheehy

Beneath the huge discrepancy between officially recorded crime figures and self-report surveys, such as the British Crime Survey lies the fact that many people see little point in reporting crime because police clear-up rates – especially in relation to property crimes – are so poor.

The reason for this most frequently trotted out by Chief Constables and the Police Federation is ‘lack of resources’. In fact, for much of the past 15 years most policemen could have been forgiven for thinking they had died and woken up in heaven, so generous were the resources allocated to them. On her first day in office, for example, Thatcher symbolically summoned leaders of the Police Federation to Downing Street to inform them that the generous pay increase and formula recommended by the Edmund-Davies Committee, which Labour had intended to implement in two stages, would be implemented immediately and in full.

The election of Thatcher also saw a dramatic increase in police numbers, with the total strength of the force in England and Wales going up from 89,226 in 1979 to over 93,000 just two years later. Overall, since 1979, spending on the police has increased rapidly, going from £1,035 million in 1978 to more than double that amount by 1982–3 and up again to £3,825 million by 1988–9. No other occupational group within the public sector has benefited to anything like the same extent. [37]

Yet despite this favoured treatment, clear-up rates have worsened considerably, with only 26 percent of crimes now being cleared up by the police as compared to 42 percent in 1979. [38] In part this is simply a matter of the inefficiency and the irrelevance of the police in solving crime. By the Home Office’s own admission:

studies have shown that for the majority of crimes cleared up, the offender’s identity is plain from the outset; victims or witnesses can say who did it, or else the offender is caught red-handed or implicated in some other way. [39]

More important for the ruling class than the role of the police in solving crime – particularly the crimes that affect ordinary people, such as burglary, breaches of the Factory Acts, racial assault or wife battering – is the police’s main function: maintaining law and order.

Establishment ideology often demands that the two functions be linked, as during the 1979 general election campaign when Thatcher consciously exploited fears about street crime and linked these to more general ruling class concerns about the need to crush the unions:

In their muddled but different ways the vandals on the picket lines and the muggers in the streets have got the same confused message – ‘we want our demands met or else’ and ‘get out of the way, give us your handbag’. [40]

It would be ludicrous to suggest, however, that the huge increase in police spending that took place after the election of the first Thatcher government should be understood as the result of a burning desire to reduce burglaries or street crime in working class neighbourhoods. [41] Rather it was based on a recognition, explicitly stated in the Ridley plan, that the depth of the economic crisis facing her government and the confrontationist policies which she intended to pursue would inevitably produce mass resistance. An expanded, loyal and more brutal police force would be required to deal with such unrest.

The performance of the police during the riots of 1981, at the Warrington print dispute in 1983, and at the Orgreave miners’ picket in 1985 (with, it must be said, considerable assistance from the trade union leaderships in the latter two cases) suggests that, while their record in solving car thefts may leave a lot to be desired, the high level of government expenditure on the police in the early years was far from being a total waste of money.

That said, by 1993 the miserable clear-up rate coupled with new corruption scandals and revelations about the role of the police in the Birmingham Six trial and other major miscarriages of justice was not only raising doubts within the government about the ‘value for money’ which it was receiving but was also contributing to public cynicism about the police.

No ruling class can afford to take public confidence in the police for granted and with Gallup polls in January 1993 showing a further 10 percent drop in support for the police, the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, appointed Sir Patrick Sheehy to conduct an inquiry into police management and conditions of service with a view to both increasing efficiency and rooting out some of the dead wood. But far from solving the Tories’ problems with the police, the publication of the Sheehy Report in July 1993 added to them.

Sheehy’s solution to the problems of police inefficiency and corruption was to propose the type of managerial solution familiar to workers in the health service and other parts of the public sector which have undergone restructuring – a streamlining of management structures, the introduction of performance indicators and performance related pay, fixed term contracts, increase in retirement age, and cutbacks in various benefits and allowances. The police were outraged. Led by their Chief Constables, they organised a mass public campaign against Sheehy, culminating in a rally of 21,000 officers (including several Chief Constables) in Wembley Stadium.

Some flavour of the tone which informed this campaign can be gathered from the comments of Mike Bennet, chairman of the Police Federation’s Metropolitan Branch, who, on the eve of the Home Secretary’s visit to the Police Federation’s Annual Conference in May, launched what the Guardian described as ‘one of the most virulent and personal attacks on a Home Secretary since the 1970s’, labelling Clarke as ‘an arrogant, rude social snob who would struggle in the modern business world, at home in the boardroom but all at sea on the shop floor.’ [42]

Having succeeded in uniting the entire police force against the government, Clarke’s successor, Michael Howard, then confirmed the impression of weakness and isolation by rejecting most of Sheehy’s more far reaching proposals and presenting a package described by the Police Staffs Association as ‘a victory for common sense’. As one embittered member of the Sheehy Committee put it, ‘Sheehy frightened the socks off the police and they in turn subjected Mr Howard to the same treatment.’ [43]

In fact even the more limited changes incorporated into the Police and Magistrates Court Bill have been received with vitriol by the Police Federation. John Smith, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, announced that he was ‘desperately concerned’ about the proposal to end local control of the police, stating that, ‘The strength of British policing lies in its sensitivity to local people, their problems and concerns. This could be heavily compromised by dictation from central government.’ In now predictable fashion, Tony Blair, shadow Home Secretary rushed to agree, saying that the measures were ‘a fundamental error that would break the link between the police and communities.’ [44]

This is mostly humbug. Neither the chief police officers nor the Labour Party have done very much to prevent the erosion of the already pitifully inadequate local control of the police during the years of Tory misrule. As Mary Tuck, former head of research at the Home Office commented in an analysis of the bill: ‘[The bill] is really a move by the Home Office to prise more power from the Chief Constables in the bipartite battle between them. One section of the old tripartite structure – local authority power – has already been largely seen off.’ [45]

Socialists should oppose attempts to further centralise state power, and the divisions between the Tories and the police raise the chances of doing this effectively, despite the fact that police opposition to Sheehy is largely motivated by sectional interest. Neither should the fact that police opposition has been limited to the relatively minor Police and Magistrates Court Bill while they have welcomed the far more dangerous Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill prevent us from exploiting the opportunity of widening the base of opposition to the Tories. The recent decision of the Police Federation to sponsor a Labour MP should not mislead anyone into believing that we may soon be seeing a rerun of 1919 when sections of the police set up their own trade union and went on strike – but it does show that resistance to attacks on conditions can suddenly resurface, albeit weakly, even where it has been most hidden among the paid guardians of the state.

Crisis in the prisons

The ineffectiveness of imprisonment as a means of reducing crime has been established beyond doubt, not least by research carried out by the Home Office. The 1986 Home Office handbook for courts, for example, summed up what was – until this year’s Conservative Party Conference – the conventional wisdom:

Evidence suggests that imposing particular sentences, or particularly severe sentences, has a very limited effect on crime levels. Longer periods in custody do not produce better results than shorter ones. No increase in prison terms would make a substantial decrease in crime rates. [46]

It is in the face of this evidence that Michael Howard now asserts that ‘prison works’ and has introduced legislation, the main effect of which will be to massively increase the number of prisoners (many of them unconvicted) in British jails. The ‘justification’ for this policy, according to Howard, is that, firstly, there will be fewer criminals wandering the streets; secondly, that prison does have a deterrent effect. Neither argument holds water.

Firstly, given the very low police clear-up rates discussed above, only 2 percent of all crimes lead to a conviction. Thus, for the courts to increase the number of those convicted who serve custodial sentences will have a negligible effect on the crime rate. According to the Home Office’s own research, in order to achieve a 1 percent drop in the crime rate the prison population would have to rise by 25 percent. [47]

Secondly, as regards young offenders, the Home Office research referred to above demonstrates the total failure of the type of young offenders institutions which Howard is now proposing to reintroduce, and the relative success of the policy of cautioning pursued since the mid-1980s with only 3 percent of juvenile offenders receiving more than two cautions. [48]

The absurdity of Howard’s logic in relation to young offenders was summed up by the Economist as follows: ‘Mr Howard wants persistent juvenile offenders locked up. His reason: they cannot re-offend during the period of punishment. But his choice of punishment increases the risk of re-offending afterwards.’ [49]

Apart from young offenders, the other main group who have been targeted for harsher treatment are people offending while on bail. It is true that there has been an increase in the number of people offending while on bail, but this needs to be qualified in two respects. Firstly, according to recent research, the most common types of offences committed while on bail are not crimes of violence (as is often implied) but car related crimes and burglary; secondly, the vast majority of defendants granted bail, 80–90 percent, do not go on to commit offences on bail. [50]

What will be the effect of Howard’s measures on the prison system? In 1961, at the height of the long post-war boom, there were 31,500 people in prison in Britain. A quarter of a century later that number had risen to an all time high of 51,000. The continued rise in numbers during the early and mid-1980s had driven the excess of prison population over available accommodation up to a figure of 7,000 in 1987, despite a massive government building programme. Thatcher’s government had the dubious honour of locking up a greater proportion of the population than any other country in Western Europe. [51]

Partly as a result of the research referred to above being reflected in sentencing policy, these numbers began to fall in the late 1980s. There was a fall of 2,700 in 1989, 1,900 the following year and in the single year of 1992, following the riot at Strangeways prison in the spring of 1991 and the implementation of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, a fall of over 4,600. However, since the beginning of 1993 there has been an unprecedentedly steep increase of 13 percent in the prison population in the first eight months of 1993. Commenting on this dramatic increase, the Prison Reform Trust have observed that:

It seems likely that this rise is linked to the furore over crime and sentencing which has dominated the headlines over past months and which appears to have had a direct impact upon sentencing practices in the courts. The two areas of crime which have attracted most press attention, offending on bail and offending by young people, have produced substantial increases in the number of remands into custody and young people in prison. [52]

In fact, 61 percent of this increase has been made up of prisoners on remand – people who are still presumed innocent but who because of the growing numbers awaiting trial effectively have to serve a prison sentence before their case comes to trial. Remand prisoners are held in the most squalid parts of the prison system and the fact that 60 percent of them are subsequently acquitted or given non-custodial sentences is likely to be little consolation to those who have already spent months inside. It is no consolation whatsoever to the families of those who commit suicide while on remand – nearly half of the 218 prisoners who have committed suicide over the past five years, despite the fact that remand prisoners make up only a fifth of the prison population. [53]

Howard’s measures will almost certainly lead to an increase in the number of prison suicides. Not only will the legislation worsen the overcrowding crisis by increasing the numbers of people in prison (leading to the greater use of police cells, disused army camps, private prison ships and new private prisons) but the additional costs involved in housing more prisoners will rule out any improvements in existing conditions. It now seems unlikely, for example, that resources will exist to implement the lofty goal of ending the practice of ‘slopping out’ by introducing proper toilet facilities into British prisons by the end of 1994. [54]

There is little evidence, however, that government ministers lose much sleep over this waste of young working class life. On the contrary, Michael Howard has recently condemned the ‘many examples of facilities which are lavish or unnecessary or regimes which are too lax’ and as part of his aim of creating a ‘decent but austere regime’, has introduced new disciplinary powers for governors, including the use of segregation as a punishment for up to two weeks instead of the present three days. [55] Clearly these young prisoners have made the wrong life choices: had they followed the example of Ernest Saunders in becoming Guinness directors rather staying on the dole, embezzled millions of pounds of shareholders’ money rather than stealing a car radio cassette, and developed a temporary form of Alzheimer’s disease rather than suicidal tendencies, they could now be giving lecture tours in the US rather than languishing in Ridley or Feltham!

Given that there is no evidence that these new proposals will reduce crime, that in introducing them the government risks alienating some of its closest supporters and that the cost of introducing them will be astronomical (with community punishments, for example, estimated to cost 5 percent of a month in jail), it seems appropriate to ask the question, why, in the face of all of this, are the Tories pursuing this strategy?

Posing a similar question in relation to the prison reforms in the 1840s, Michael Ignatieff, writing in the days before the Gulf War blunted his critical faculties, suggests the following:

The persistent support for the penitentiary is inexplicable as long as we assume that its appeal rested on a functional capacity to control crime. Instead its support rested on a larger social need. It had appeal because the reformers succeeded in presenting it as a response, not merely to crime, but to the whole social crisis of a period and as part of a larger strategy of political, social and legal reform designed to re-establish order on a new foundation. [56]

Applying this analysis to the present day involves seeing Howard’s proposals not primarily as a response to an increase in the crime rate nor as the product of a coherent alternative strategy perhaps based on research to which only he has access, but as having a quite different aim. This aim is first and foremost a cynical and calculated attempt to save this government’s skin by taking the bitterness, anger and alienation which millions of people feel towards the government and diverting it towards young offenders. They, and lone parents, are then blamed for the misery of people’s lives. Then, responding to the fear and insecurity which the Tories have helped to create, government adopts a ‘tough minded’ authoritarian approach. That thousands of lives (and millions of pounds) will be wasted in the process is apparently neither here nor there.

Can they succeed?

The fact that the government is prepared to resort to the strategy outlined above is a not sign of strength but rather of political desperation and intellectual bankruptcy. That does not mean, however, they cannot enjoy some degree of success. The victory of the fascist British National Party in the Millwall by-election in September last year shows the degree of bitterness and alienation in Britain today. That despair, bred of poverty and unemployment, can quickly lead to a hunt for scapegoats – whether it be black people, lone parents or young offenders.

Tory responsibility for the BNP victory lies not only in creating the social conditions in which fascism can begin to grow but also, by the creation of a ‘witch hunting’ atmosphere, whipping up popular feeling against minorities and then attempting to use that feeling to justify greater repression of the sort contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

Had there existed a parliamentary opposition prepared to point to the link between crime and the poverty which the Tories’ policies have created, then the kind of scapegoating of lone parents and others which intensified throughout 1993 and which reached its low point at the Conservative conference in Blackpool in October would have been far more difficult. As we have seen, however, the Labour Party, far from challenging Major, Howard and his predecessor, Kenneth Clarke, have attempted to outbid them. In a performance which mirrored Michael Howard’s at the Tory party conference, shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair, speaking above the Police Federation stall which took pride of place at the front of the 1993 Labour Party Conference, proudly announced, ‘Labour is the party of law and order in Britain today. Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.’

In the face of such blatant electoral opportunism, it is more important than ever that genuine socialists restate some basic facts: that 95 percent of all crimes are crimes against property; that the average criminal is likely to be unemployed or in a low skill job; that the real criminals in our society are the Robert Maxwells who fleece workers’ pension funds or the Kenneth Clarkes who put VAT on domestic fuel knowing it will lead to deaths through hypothermia or the Margaret Thatchers who send hundreds of young Argentinian sailors to their deaths; and that it ill becomes the party of Cecil Parkinson, David Mellor and Timothy Yeo to lecture teenage girls on morality.

More than that, however, it is necessary to turn the anger and bitterness felt by millions towards its source: a ruling class whose only solution to the failure of its own policies – and its own system - is to scapegoat hippies, teenage mothers and hunt saboteurs, build new prisons for ten year old children and reintroduce prison ships. At the end of the 20th century the need for a socialist alternative to such barbarism has never been greater.


1. Thatcher’s Children, Socialist Review, March 1993.

2. Guardian, 3 March 1993.

3. Guardian, 7 October 1993.

4. There are obvious similarities between this argument and the arguments developed in the late 1970s by Stuart Hall et al. in Policing the Crisis (London 1978) to explain the way in which Thatcher exaggerated and distorted the issue of mugging to create and justify demands for more law and order. The fact that Hall then used this insight as the basis for a theory that Thatcherism represented a new form of class rule – authoritarian populism – which justified the rightward moving politics of the (now defunct) Communist Party magazine Marxism Today should not lead us to reject what was initially a valuable identification of a political trend. See Alex Callinicos, The Politics of Marxism Today, International Socialism 29.

5. Economist, 23 October 1993. There is a useful discussion of the difficulties in interpreting crime statistics in T. May, Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process (Open University 1993).

6. Economist, 23 October 1993.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. D. Utting, J. Bright, C. Henricson, Crime and the Family (Family Policy Studies Centre 1993).

11. Guardian, 18 December 1993.

12. Economist, 23 October 1993.

13. Cited in D. Utting, J. Bright and C. Henricson, op. cit., pp. 19–20.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Cited in D. Utting, J. Bright and C. Henricson, op. cit., p. 15.

17. Economist, 23 October 1993.

18. Guardian, 9 November 1993.

19. Guardian, 4 November 1993.

20. Labour’s obsession with community is well illustrated in their 1987 policy document Protecting Our People where, as Audrey Farrell notes, the word is used 13 times in the first three pages (though never defined)! For a discussion of Labour’s record in this area, see Audrey Farrell, Crime, Class and Corruption: The politics of the police (Bookmarks 1992) pp. 155–168.

21. Guardian, 20 February 1993.

22. Guardian, 22 February 1993.

23. For an alternative explanation of Clinton’s victory, see S. Smith, No choice for workers in Socialist Review, November 1992.

24. Guardian, 28 January 1994, Support for Tories collapses among the middle classes, and Guardian, 12 January 1994, Hardline policies on crime fail to win public support.

25. Working Class Criminology in I. Taylor, P. Walton, J. Young (eds.), Critical Criminology (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1975), p. 89.

26. J. Lea and J. Young, What is to be done about law and order? (Pluto Press, 1993), p. 104.

27. Since the publication of this book, Lea and Young have developed their arguments in a number of other books and articles. However, it is clear from their foreword to the most recent edition of What is to be done about law and order? (with the subtitle Crisis in the 90s replacing Crisis in the 80s, but otherwise identical to the 1984 edition) that they regard the arguments in this ‘founding text’ of left realism as still relevant to the present debate about crime.

28. Ibid., p. 55.

29. Though hardly the significance often implied by Lea and Young. Consider, for example, the following passage which in nostalgia and conservatism might well have served as the basis for Major’s back to basics policy: ‘Crime is the end point of a continuum of disorder. It is not separate from other forms of aggravation and breakdown. It is the run down council estate where music blares out of windows early in the morning; it is the graffiti on the walls; it is aggression in the shops; it is kids that show no respect; it is large trucks racing through your roads; it is streets you dare not walk down at night; it is always being careful; it is a symbol of a world falling apart. It is lack of respect for humanity and for fundamental human decency.’ Or, as the song says, ‘Fings ain’t wot they used to be’!

30. Ibid., pp. 85–92.

31. Ibid., p. 104.

32. Ibid., p. 111.

33. Guardian, 7 January 1994.

34. Guardian, 8 January 1994.

35. Guardian, 1 November 1993.

36. Guardian, 8 January 1994.

37. R. Reiner and M. Cross (eds.), Beyond Law and Order: Criminal Justice Policy and Politics into the 1990s (Macmillan 1991).

38. Economist, 23 October 1993.

39. Cited in A. Farrell, Crime, Class and Corruption, op. cit., p. 29.

40. Margaret Thatcher, 1979. Cited in M. Brake and C. Hale, Law and Order in Brown and Sparks (eds.) Beyond Thatcherism: Social policy, politics and society (Open University 1989), p. 137.

41. Though this is precisely how some criminologists sympathetic to ‘left realism’ do seem to interpret the record of the Thatcher government. See, for example, the introductory chapter to R. Reiner and M. Cross, op. cit., which also provides a nice example of the way such criminologists end up acting as unofficial advisors to the Home Office, arguing that, ‘The government is attempting to move beyond its original “law and order’ approach which it has come to regard as simplistic. (Criminologists might be forgiven for muttering a collective “told you so”!) But its rediscovery of the social in the guise of the “community” remains partial and contradictory. The essays in this book should help chart the way “beyond law and order”.’ Presumably Michael Howard never got round to reading them! For a useful critique of ‘left realism’, see the introduction to P. Scraton (ed.), Law, Order and the Authoritarian State (Open University 1987).

42. Guardian, 19 May 1993.

43. Guardian, 29 October 1993.

44. Guardian, 18 December 1993.

45. Ibid.

46. Cited in D. Blackie, A Criminal System, Socialist Review, May 1990.

47. Economist, 23 October 1993.

48. Guardian, 2 October 1993.

49. Economist, 23 October 1993.

50. Bail: the law, best practice and the debate (Waterside Press 1993).

51. Prison overcrowding: A crisis waiting in the wings (Prison Reform Trust 1993).

52. Ibid.

53. Bail ..., op. cit.

54. Prison overcrowding ..., op. cit.

55. Guardian, 4 November 1993.

56. M. Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain (Macmillan 1978), p. 120.

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