by Matt Cavanagh
The lead story (£) in today’s Times tells us that David Cameron is feeling stung by the accusation that his government lacks a coherent policy on crime and law and order. This accusation will be familiar to Labour Uncut readers, for example this piece last year, and more recently after the latest set of crime figures here.
Cameron’s response, we are told, is a new policy of “virtual prison” for offenders on community sentences, tagged and placed under curfew for up to 16 hours a day. But while “virtual prison” is an evocative new label, the policy itself is not new: it was announced in August.
On the inside pages, the Times home affairs expert Richard Ford does a better job of putting the story in context, reminding us that this is “yet another attempt, by yet another government”, to strengthen public confidence in alternatives to prison (similar attempts by the Brown government, for example, can be seen here and here).
The other element in today’s story is No 10’s apparent unhappiness with the Ministry of Justice, and speculation that it may be broken up – based on an article earlier in the week by the Times’ Rachel Sylvester, picked up today by ConservativeHome. Contrary to Conservative Home’s Paul Goodman, I think this is very unlikely – though we agree that “there are few less futile Whitehall activities than merging and unmerging Departments” (as I argued in relation to the plan announced earlier this week, to split up the UK Border Agency).
Structural reforms won’t do anything to help Cameron’s fundamental problem on crime and law and order, which is a lack of ideas. This was disguised temporarily by his ability to strike the right tone over the riots (as far as the majority of the public was concerned), after an initially sluggish response.
But as those events recede into memory, the problem returns. It is evident in the way Cameron tends to skate over the subject, keen to avoid getting bogged down in a debate over police cuts. When pressed, he falls back on stock lines about what the government clearly sees as its flagship reforms: online crime maps (a development of a policy inherited from Labour), initiatives to tackle “troubled families” (again inherited from Labour), and of course the one policy which is truly new: elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).
Perhaps because this is the only genuinely new idea, it ends up bearing far too heavy a load: the new Commissioners are offered as the solution to every problem, from knife crime, to crime in general, to the riots, to phone hacking and corruption – despite the rather obvious counter-argument that many of these problems have been concentrated in London, which is the force already closest to the PCC model.
But if Cameron and his colleagues really did persuade themselves that these individuals would somehow singlehandedly cut crime and sort out every other problem, that may explain why they are looking nervously at the list of Conservative PCC candidates who are actually putting themselves forward.
On justice policy, the incoherence of the first year of the Cameron government – punitive rhetoric from some ministers, contradicted by others arguing that prison is pointless or unaffordable – has gradually resolved into a more coherent and grown-up attempt to balance the competing considerations of punishment, public confidence, and cost. I have argued before that this is something Labour should welcome.
The justice secretary Ken Clarke has been lionized by the liberal media, but in fact his initial approach to sentencing reform was characteristically lazy: carelessly thought out, badly framed, confusingly argued, and undermined by inept handling of the politics and his cabinet colleagues. He wasted an excellent opportunity, succeeding only in reinforcing the general assumption among the political class that sentencing reform is impossible.
Even before the riots, the government’s policy position had shifted back to trying to stabilize the prison population, rather than reduce it. Under a moderate amount of pressure from the media and Conservative backbenchers, Cameron felt obliged to clarify that “we will always pay the costs necessary to protect the public and to punish criminals, and we will not reduce the prison population by cutting prison sentences”.
Mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes – favoured by Labour, initially dismissed by Clarke as “ill-thought out, overly prescriptive, and over-used” – were back.
Cameron has made the classic strategic error of relentlessly talking up the problem – society was broken, crime rising, the justice system a failure and Labour’s policies hopeless – and then failing to come up with a solution which seems anywhere near radical enough.
Instead, he is slipping back into the Labour narrative and policies he spent years trying to discredit, and hoping no one will notice. The closest thing to a Cameron speech on crime and justice, a Downing Street press conference in July 2011, could in large part have been lifted straight from either of his New Labour predecessors.
Cameron’s second problem is the cuts. The Ministry of Justice’s budget settlement remains largely unchanged from the period when Clarke was assuming he could cut prison numbers significantly. The department is confused and demoralised, living under the shadow of a budgetary crisis. At the same time, the cuts to police funding are starting to bite. Cameron’s defensive lines – insisting that “visible policing” is increasing, and constantly citing the example of his local Thames Valley force, whose situation is totally unrepresentative of other forces around the country – will look more and more exposed over the coming year.
Crime and law and order remains consistently in the top five issues for voters. The Conservatives have traditionally enjoyed a healthy lead on the issue, but the gap was closing before the riots, and hasn’t really recovered. With crime seemingly on the rise, police numbers falling, and a government clearly out of ideas, Labour has a real opportunity – though it has some work to do on its own strategy first, as I have argued elsewhere.
Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser on crime and justice under the last Labour government.