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What should the left say about crime?

Being a victim of crime is no fun. My family’s house was burgled repeatedly when I was growing up. On one occasion – when I was 15 – it happened in the early hours when we were all in bed. I remember hearing the clunking noises downstairs and presuming (with some irritation) that my twin sister was up and about, until the intruder crept to my door and his hand rested on the handle. I coughed, and he stormed into my parents’ room. When my mother yelled: “Who’s there?”, he gave a quick-fire answer – “Father Christmas” (geddit?) – so at least he had a sense of humour.

Three years back I was beaten up and mugged on a bus in Tottenham: like many who’ve had that experience, my anger was more directed at the bystanders who did nothing than a presumably troubled drug addict looking for his next fix. And, just before Christmas, my flatmate and I had our bikes stolen: a few days later, they appeared in all their glory on Gumtree. Not that the police were particularly interested – but, to be fair, there’s bigger issues to deal with than nicked bikes in Hackney.

It’s true to say that the radical left has always had trouble cobbling together a popular position on crime which, after all, remains way up there on the general public’s list of concerns. The standard line is that crime – well, mostly petty crime, rather than more middle-class crimes like embezzlement – is a product of economic circumstances.

The evidence bears this out. The British Crime Survey, launched in 1981, reported just over two million violent crimes at its inception. Following the recession and soaring levels of unemployment, the numbers shot up dramatically: it was still double the level by the time the Tories were kicked out of office in 1997.

Another study by the Crime and Society Foundation has convincingly argued that the escalating murder rates in the 1980s were the legacy of recession and mass unemployment.

But, as the debt-fuelled economic boom of the 1990s gathered pace, crime went into freefall. The Survey concluded that there were 18.5 million criminal incidents in 1993, but by 2009 the figure was only 10.7 million. New Labour would have us believe that this was due to its authoritarian law-and-order policies; but, as a Number 10 memo outlined near the end of Blair’s premiership: “80% of (the) recent decrease in crime (is) due to economic factors . . . Unless action is taken, economic and social pressures are expected to put recent falls in crime under threat”.

The trouble is that – while this analysis is completely spot on – it’s a tough sell in many working-class communities. Crime is a class issue. The British Crime Survey shows that people on lower incomes are more likely to be a victim of crime. It’s not what I’d want, but there’s no doubting that a left populism that combined economic interventionism with a tough message on law-and-order would get a sympathetic hearing in some working-class communities.

And while crime has gone down, fear of crime hasn’t. No doubt this is partly because of tabloid hysteria but also – I would speculate – it is an ironic consequence of politicians’ tough rhetoric on law-and-order, because it has exaggerated the actual problem in people’s minds.

The left has long argued that prison doesn’t work: three-quarters of young prisoners re-offend, for example. That’s hardly surprising, because prison doesn’t address the root causes of crime. In probably the only area where the Liberal Democrats have any real influence, the Conservative-led Government has accepted this approach, and is now moving to reduce what is the highest prison population in Western Europe.

That’s left Labour in a bit of a bind, not least because of New Labour’s authoritarian legacy. When Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan hinted at a more progressive approach, some of the New Labour old guard were quick to attack him. The party also hasn’t had much to say about the Tory acceleration of a pretty abhorrent Blairite policy (and one Blair railed against himself when in Opposition): selling prisons to private firms to make dosh out of them.

When Blair was a rising star as Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary in the early 1990s, he won plaudits for famously committing to a policy of “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” But, as his former political secretary John McTernan has, to his great credit, admitted, New Labour’s strategy ended up as “tough on crime, tough on criminals”. Between 1993 and 2010, England and Wales’ prison population nearly doubled from 44,500 to around 85,000.

The real solution to crime, of course, is to wage war against the economic circumstances that breed it: like unemployment and poverty. We need a focus on rehabilitation, rather than “lock away the key”-style policies that please the tabloids but do nothing to solve the underlying causes. I’d also argue we need to consider even more far-reaching policies – like the state decriminalising and de facto nationalising the drugs industry, which is undeniably at the source of many crimes.

But, the question I want to throw out there is – how do we package that argument in a popular way that resonates with people, especially those most likely to be the victims of crime? What other policies should the left be looking at?

Can the left stitch together an argument that convinces people on what is – let’s face it – the right’s natural terrain?

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