Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Crime, society and community challenges... my fourth guest post > from @scottishpaddy84

300810_ in my neighbourhood

When it comes to crime, the next leader of the Labour Party will have real power to make changes. They’ll have pretty decent freedom of movement in policy making. Compared to economic or public services policy, there are fewer internal structural constraints on the policy direction the Leader can take.

That means the next leader could put the stamp of their leadership on crime, society and community policy more than any other.

What challenges will they face?

First, the government will be keen to cast the debate in terms of distant state indifference versus local power. They will talk of democratic accountability as a way to get the police to focus on what matters, not Whitehall form filling.

At the same time, Budget pressure will mean police numbers will begin to fall. We’ll see shorter and fewer prison sentences. If high unemployment is sustained, we may well start to see an increase in crime figures *

In turn, this will increase the salience of crime as an issue. This will present a major political opportunity – as the Government will find it hard to present itself on the side of “Lawnorder” while cutting police budgets and shortening Prison sentences.
So what can they do about it?

The next Leader could choose to foreground punishment, policing and being “tough on crime”. However, I doubt any of them will want to do anything that could be presented as a straight grab for Tory crime policy.

There’s little appetite for that kind of political ruthlessness today. Instead, our candidate’s talk a lot about data based policy frameworks, quite rightly wanting to make good policy, not good sound bites.

So I expect the next Labour Party leader to broadly embrace the opportunity presented by the Coalition to shift the debate on prison numbers, sentencing and policy. If they’re smart, they’ll do this provisionally and on the basis of “What works”, and stressing that what matters is frontline police work, proper funding to prevent recidivism and investment in building community strength, not “Going soft because it’s cheap”

To emphasise that point, I expect our next leader will extend a vision of a “social community” or some such, as a more fleshed out response to the Big Society, by which Labour encourages mutual’s, charities, and councils to localise community services, and especially give communities a bigger voice in crime prevention policies.

Giving people the power to build a good society is an attractive and useful sell. Crime is holistic, after all, and issues from housing quality, to social engagement all affect it. Here, we pause, and stroke our beards compassionately.

Gosh, this all sounds remarkably easy. Let’s just give being nice a try!

A word of warning though.

When it comes to crime and society, there’s a lot of good reasons to embrace localism, rehabilitation and community service, but there’s also a danger of retreating into a kind of soggy loveliness that doesn’t relate to how angry people are about crime, social breakdown and anti-social acts.

I spend my evenings on an estate mixed with private and council housing. It is an excellent estate with good staff, regular cleaning and a strong sense of community. There are problems, as there will be in an estate with vulnerable residents, but the estate management has used local enforcement powers to get rid of a crack den, for example. What I’m saying is that they are good places to live. I’ve never felt unsafe.

Still, about every other night, someone urinates in the street.

I can cheerfully say that if I ever discover the phantom street urinator, my urge will not be to rehabilitate him.

Now, my rage of mine at such a minor piece of anti-social behavior should not get in the way of making good policy. Just because I want to do it, I doubt upstanding citizens should be allowed to take pruning shears to the private parts of street urinators. That would be bad.

But even if my atavistic urges should not be given into, they shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed. Suffering from Crime and Anti-Social behavior isn’t a small issue that can be distracted from by visiting a teenager’s charity and nodding empathetically.

So if the next Labour leader doesn’t find a way to channel the anger people feel about crime and society, they will not get the traction they need to talk about the positive steps they wish to make a stronger community.

This is the challenge for the next leader.

Talk of localism, of community, of the good society, and noble policies intended to bring that rhetoric to life, will fall flat if not accompanied with a clear understanding that people live with a level of unpleasantness, anti-social behavior, rudeness and criminal activity that should neither be tolerated or shrugged at.

Disproportionately, the people affected by the poor behavior of others are the poorest, the weakest, and the most vulnerable. If we are to try to set out policies to support community, to build society, to encourage mutualism, these will so much blather if we cannot also convince people that we are as angry, frustrated and passionate as they are about stopping criminal and anti-social behavior.

Note I have provided precisely zero solutions. I am just trying to set out the challenges.

@scottishpaddy84 aka Gordon Miller.

*Oddly if we cut police numbers, BCS might start going up, while recorded crime falls – esp. if forces are given more discretion in recording crime)
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