The Coalition government of 2010 to 2015 was not afraid of controversy in its approach to crime and justice. Police and crime commissioners were elected at considerable expense, while forces were subjected to unprecedented cuts in their budgets. The probation service was broken up as prison numbers remained at or near record levels. Legal aid – both civil and criminal – was reformed and few opportunities lost to rail against human rights legislation that threatened to give prisoners the right to vote, lifers the right to have their sentences reviewed and allow dangerous foreign ne’er-do-wells to remain in Britain thumbing their noses at everyone from the Home Secretary to the readership of the Daily Mail. So why, come the 2015 election campaign, was so little made of all this? Why was crime and justice the dog that didn’t bark?
At least part of the answer to this lies in the significant degree of consensus that existed between the major parties – at least if their manifestos are to be believed. But before the extent of this consensus is explored, it’s worth setting the 2015 election in its historical context.
In a series of contributions to successive editions of the Oxford Handbook of Criminology two of Britain’s leading criminologists, David Downes and Rod Morgan (1997; 2002; 2007; 2012), have analysed the rise and fall of ‘law and order’ as an issue in general elections since the Second World War. According to Downes and Morgan, consensus reigned for over 30 years. Until the late 1970s, there was broad agreement among politicians of all shades that crime and how to respond to it were serious matters best left to experts.
The politics of law and order
This cosy state of affairs came to an abrupt end in 1979 when Mrs Thatcher swept to power proclaiming, amongst other things, that the Conservatives were the party of law and order. With the Labour left enjoying a brief but noisy ascendancy in the 1980s, particularly in local government, and Thatcher committed to what Andrew Gamble (1994) famously described as a free economy and a strong state, the Conservatives were able to win three more elections, in part by painting Labour as soft on crime – the party of disorderly strikers, anarchic protesters and radical civil libertarians.
Sobered by these defeats, the Labour Party spent the mid-1990s dumping, in Downes and Morgan’s (1997) words, its ‘hostages to fortune’. By 1995 Tony Blair could promise his party’s conference in Brighton, and the millions at home hanging on his every soundbite, that a Labour government would be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. ‘Law and order’, he said, ‘is a Labour issue today’. At the general election two years later ‘a new second-order consensus’ had emerged (Downes and Morgan 2012: 185). ‘New’ Labour and the Conservatives alike were signed up to supporting the police, prioritising crime prevention, improving services for victims of crime and reserving the use of imprisonment for the most serious and intractable offenders.
Hot political climate
For David Garland, writing in 2001 in his much-quoted book, The Culture of Control, this convergence around a populist agenda represented a narrowing of the debate. Crime policy was no longer the preserve of experts but a vehicle for the expression of collective anger and righteous demands for retribution. In an increasingly hot political climate, penal measures had to be seen to be ‘tough, smart and popular with the public’ (Garland, 2001: 14).
The hostages to fortune successfully dumped, Labour went on to win again in 2001 and 2005. Over three terms in office it became increasingly managerial in its approach to criminal justice and, to critics from both Right and Left, increasingly illiberal – most notably in its response to the attacks in New York on 11th September 2001 and London on 7th July 2005. This enabled the Conservatives to attempt – again as Downes and Morgan (2012) put it –to overtake Labour on the left by restoring civil liberties, freeing the police from the fetters of the target culture and encouraging all members of the ‘big society’ to become active citizens.
Five years on, it was hard to find any hostages to fortune in Labour’s manifesto; but not much easier to see signs that the Conservatives were planning an overtaking manoeuvre either. Labour promised ‘safer communities’ – political boiler plate of the highest order – while the Conservatives committed themselves – no less unexceptionably – to ‘fighting crime and standing up for victims’. With the Liberal Democrats outlining their policies under the headline ‘secure communities’ – more boilerplate – it was left to UKIP to prioritise removing the ‘EU’s handcuffs’ so that foreign criminals could be kept at bay (or rapidly deported) and the Greens to draw attention to the social causes of crime.
Behind the headlines, a more complex picture emerges. So, for example, the former Coalition partners could agree that crime had fallen over the past five years, but not by how much: 20% according to the Conservatives, half that if the Liberal Democrats were to be believed. Labour, on the hand, claimed that violent crime had increased. UKIP – perhaps rather predictably – blamed an increase in petty criminality on ‘gangs of thieves, pickpockets and scammers’ from overseas.
The response to the Coalition’s introduction of police and crime commissioners (PCCs) was equally mixed. The Conservatives were alone in promising to maintain and develop the role. UKIP proposed a reduction in the number of police forces and therefore of PCCs. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens wanted to abolish them altogether. Only the Liberal Democrats and the Greens were prepared to contemplate fewer people going to prison, although commitments to rehabilitation through education and productive work were common to all parties.
More evidence of consensus between the two main parties, and of Labour’s unwillingness to give any new hostages to fortune, came in their policy on drugs. Like the Conservatives, their manifesto committed the party to extending the ban on psycho-active substances to so-called legal highs. Here again it was the Liberal Democrats and the Greens who took a more radical approach, suggesting that drugs should be treated as a health issue and allowing for the possibility, however remote, of a move in the direction of decriminalisation.
Crime victims were a priority for the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. All three parties promised new rights for victims to be enshrined either in victims’ laws (Conservative and Labour) or a separate bill of rights (Liberal Democrats). Violence against women was another common concern with improved, better funded services promised by four of the five main UK parties. UKIP, here as elsewhere, took a distinctive line pledging to adopt a zero tolerance approach to cultural practices – forced marriage, female genital mutilation and ‘honour killings’ – that ‘conflict with British values and customs’. Reviews of legislation provided for enhanced sentences for the perpetrators of hate crime aimed either at extending it to new groups, or increasing the penalties still further, were also proposed by all parties bar UKIP.
The only issue to receive more than a passing mention during the campaign was whether Britain should, as the Conservative manifesto put it, scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA), break the formal link with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and introduce a British Bill of Rights. UKIP were even more forthright vowing to end the corruption of British justice by bringing our legal system back under British control. The other three parties all wanted to retain the HRA although Labour talked about reforming the ECHR in contrast to the Liberal Democrats who offered an unambiguous commitment to taking action to comply with its decisions.
Insofar as the 2015 election was just another battle in the long-running electoral war between the Conservative and Labour parties dating back to the early years of the last century, crime and justice saw no more than the occasional skirmish over human rights and some low level hostilities about the role of police and crime commissioners in holding the police to account. Elsewhere – on prison numbers, on victims of crime, drugs, violence against women and hate crime – there was little for the parties to fall out about. Where policies differed they did so only in their emphasis and at the margins.
Alternatives to the careful orthodoxies of the main contenders were evident in the bold defence of liberal values mounted by the Liberal Democrats, in the Greens’ determination to set the problem of crime in the wider context of unemployment, poor education, mental ill-health and social inequality and in UKIP’s insistence that Britain’s European Union-inspired inability to control its borders was at the root of the crime problem.
With Labour giving no new hostages to fortune and the Conservatives concentrating on traditional concerns after their flirtation with the big society, Downes and Morgan’s second-order consensus was maintained. Nor was there any sign, in Garland’s terms, of a change in policy climate. Toughness, popularity and an apparently unshakeable belief in the criminal law and the institutions of criminal justice as instruments of social policy continued to hold sway.
Whether the dog finds its voice in 2020 with Jeremy Corbyn in charge of the Labour kennel remains to be seen.
Downes, D. and Morgan, R. (1997) ‘Dumping the ‘hostages to fortune’? The politics of law and order in post-war Britain”, in Maguire, M., Morgan, R., and Reiner, R. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Downes, D. and Morgan, R. (2002) ‘No turning back: the politics of law and order into the millennium’, in Maguire, M., Morgan, R., and Reiner, R. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Downes, D. and Morgan, R. (2007) ‘The skeletons in the cupboard: the politics of law and order at the turn of the millennium’, in Maguire, M., Morgan, R., and Reiner, R. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, 4th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Downes, D. and Morgan, R. (2012) ‘Overtaking on the left? The politics of law and order in the ‘Big Society”, in Maguire, M., Morgan, R., and Reiner, R. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, 5th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gamble, A. (1994) The Free Economy and the Strong State, 2nd edition. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bill Dixon is Professor of Criminology in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. He spent most of the 1980s working in local government and the voluntary sector on issues that became the hostages to fortune dumped by ‘New’ Labour in the 1990s.