It was predictable that figures on the left of Labour such as Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott should be quick to link the riots to the coalition government’s spending cuts. Less so perhaps that the party’s deputy leader and New Labour establishment figure Harriet Harman should do the same. It raises the question of whether Labour’s curious journey on crime has come full circle.
Back in the 1980s one could be forgiven for thinking that much of the Labour party, while by no means condoning crime, believed that much of it was an understandable if regrettable response to Thatcher’s cuts. Labour viewed the police with suspicion, particularly after the miners’ strike. At local level they could be reluctant to support initiatives like Neighbourhood Watch, or to tackle low-level criminal and nuisance activities that later became known as anti-social behaviour.
Such attitudes were doubtless sincere enough, but they didn’t play well with the sort of voters Labour needed to win a general election. As Labour’s shadow home secretary, Tony Blair set about mending fences with the police and changing Labour’s rhetorical tone to the ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ formula. In doing so he managed to neutralise a perceived weakness of the party. But this wasn’t enough.
When Blair took over the leadership, one of New Labour’s trademarks was establishing that they were the party that was toughest on crime. To this end, the Blair government introduced endless new pieces of legislation and hundreds of new criminal offences introduced in a bid to outflank all comers (including the Tories, the traditional law and order party) on the right on crime policy. Labour were the party that was against crime, so by definition their opponents, especially the Lib Dems, weren’t. (See Nick Cohen’s book Pretty Straight Guys for more on this.)
Any attempt by opponents to suggest that things were more complex than government propaganda implied was derided as a sign that they were ‘on the side of the criminals’. I never ceased to be surprised at how easily Labour activists (even those who were active in the 1980s) adopted this rhetoric, using their ‘tough on crime’ versus ‘soft on crime’ mantra in leaflets, attacking opponents for not issuing enough ASBOs etc.
Now, and perhaps because they can’t resist attacking the cuts, Labour’s tone has come over all atavistic. It is true that in his House of Commons speech Ed Miliband did not blame the cuts for the riots. But one could well imagine that if the riots had happened two years ago, and Nick Clegg had made a similar to speech to the nuanced one Miliband made yesterday, Labour would have been very quick to spin the final section of it as condoning the rioters .
If this event marks a rowing back from Labour’s ‘tougher than the rest’ approach to criminal justice then that is to be welcomed. Things are indeed more complex than being either against crime or in favour of it. A sensible debate free from emotive posturing would be a good thing. Yet in the cold light of day Labour will wish to avoid any hint of appearing as apologists for the rioters, thereby compromising position on law and order. But I can well imagine that Conservative, and perhaps even Lib Dem strategists will be itching to turn Labour’s past rhetoric back on them. Indeed this may well already have started.