Johnson's bluster on crime

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The prime minister, like many before him, has advocated greater police numbers and increased stop and search powers. This approach won’t tackle the issues fuelling violent crime, writes Brian Richardson.

“Entitlement, aggression, amorality, lack of concern for others.” That was how one woman described a particularly notorious member of the Bullingdon Club during her time as a student at Oxford University in the 1980s. She recalls “with extreme regret and embarrassment” her role acting as a scout for an organisation which was characterised by a culture of vandalism and intimidation. Women were routinely belittled at its lavish dinners while others were recruited to perform sex acts.

Barely three years after David Cameron’s ignominious departure, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is now the second member of that club to become British prime minister.

Johnson is rarely lost for words, but was tongue-tied when asked about his previous drug taking during the leadership campaign. He was similarly reluctant to explain why the police turned up to his home following reports of a late night argument with his partner.

It hasn’t taken long for him to find his voice again and the tone he strikes is markedly different to that which typified his student days. He no longer classifies the police as “plebs” claiming instead that he is “a prime minister who backs our police all the way”. He has promised to “give them the resources and the confidence they need to get the job done” and has pledged to recruit 20,000 more over the next three years.

In addition, he announced a plan to create 10,000 new prison places and £100 million has been pledged to improve security in order to prevent criminality within prisons. Meanwhile the Crown Prosecution Service has been promised £85 million to tackle violent crime.

Most controversially, Johnson and his gung-ho home secretary Priti Patel announced an expansion in police stop and search powers. Forces in England and Wales will now be able to carry out searches in designated areas under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 without requiring the authority of a senior officer.

There are understandable concerns about violent crime, concerns heightened with the news that a newlywed police officer was killed in a horrific incident in the days after Johnson’s declaration. His proposals will do little to address these concerns.

While it is true that gun and knife crime have increased significantly in recent years, overall levels of crime have remained broadly stable. This is despite the fact that there has been a corresponding fall in police numbers. This gives the lie to the quaint notion that the presence of police on the streets acts as a deterrent. Furthermore, the police do not detect much of the crime that does occur. In 2018, just 8.2 percent of crimes reported to the police resulted in a suspect being charged or summonsed to court.

The use of stop and search has long been a major bone of contention, particularly for those of us from black and minority ethnic communities. Its disproportionate use was the primary reason why Sir William Macpherson, the author of the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report, was forced to conclude that the police were institutionally racist. In the wake of a summer of riots in 2011 a study commissioned by the then home secretary Theresa May not only indicated that such discrimination still existed. It also showed that over a quarter of the stops carried out were illegally conducted. Far from solving crime and promoting social cohesion, such measures frequently stoke up resentment that leads to uprisings of the kind we witnessed that summer.

Following that report, May introduced proposals which were meant to ensure that such stops were more targeted and intelligence-led. A recent report entitled The Colour of Injustice, by London School of Economics, StopWatch and Release researchers, showed that the outcome has been even greater disproportionality. This should come as no surprise. The police do not tend to patrol leafy suburbs or routinely raid the dinner parties of middle class cocaine users. They are, however, a common sight in the areas where marginalised youth tend to congregate.

If Johnson were serious about tackling crime, he would look to invest significant resources in education, training and youth services. As the words with which we began illustrate however, personal ambition is all that really matters to him. Instead of seriously engaging with the arguments about violent crime, he simply dismisses them as the concern of “left wing criminologists”.

Labour should be well placed to expose Johnson’s crude and populist electioneering. Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and former minister David Lammy have done much to expose the injustices that persist. Abbott was right to denounce the Home Office’s knife crime chicken box initiative as crude and offensive. Unfortunately, any criticism of Johnson’s proposals is slightly hamstrung by Labour’s own commitment to recruit 10,000 new police officers.

The £2.5 billion prison-building programme exposes the fact that the Tories can always find money for punitive projects, particularly when they benefit private contractors. We should fight for investment that benefits working class communities. Meanwhile let us ensure that Johnson’s premiership is short and swiftly forgotten.