Tuesday, April 12, 2005
The propaganda war in this election campaign is confronting voters with a mountain range of bollocks. But when it comes to the issue of crime, the voters are facing a veritable testicular Himalayas.
Top of the handwritten shopping list on the front cover of the new Tory manifesto is "More Police". I would have been more impressed if Michael Howard had instead written "Better Police".
Most politicians seem to believe that the answer to crime is more of the same. Richard Ingram (in Sunday's Observer) has a conspiratorial explanation for this lack of imagination.
The cliché du jour is that the police are nowadays "tied to their desks" and "filling in forms". I am frankly sceptical of this excuse. A feature of British workplace culture, in both the public and private sectors, is that it is considered a perk not to have to deal with the public. This is why, for example, whenever you visit a hotel or restaurant in Britain, it seems that teenagers have been left in charge. The management is nowhere to be seen.
There is no reason to think that the police are immune from this phenomenon. Faced with a choice between pounding the beat on a cold and wet night, or sitting at a desk with a mug of hot tea "filling in forms", suddenly the bureaucracy has its attractions.
There are lies, damned lies and crime statistics, which make it easy for unscrupulous politicians to raise fears and indulge in wild exaggeration. A recent Tory claim that violent crime had soared was immediately attacked by Britain's chief constables, but will have succeeded in raising fears nonetheless.
Fear of crime is often as much of a problem as crime itself, which is why irresponsible fear-mongering can make the situation worse. A policy that would tackle both crime and fear is to put police constables back on the beat. This means regular foot patrols in communities where individual police officers and local people know one another.
Unlike various quick-fixes and gimmicks such as ASBOs and CCTV cameras, 'bobbies on the beat' is an unoriginal, old-fashioned and low-tech strategy. But there is no better way to nip low-level crime in the bud while creating a visible police presence that provides people with reassurance.
And a better (though even more old-fashioned) idea than New Labour's gimmick of 'community support officers' is to reintroduce useful jobs such as park keepers, 'lollipop ladies', bus conductors, caretakers and nightwatchmen. Most of these jobs went in the municipal economy drives of the late 70s and early 80s, yet removing such people turned out to be a false economy. No-one appreciated that these jobs fulfilled an unofficial policing role. Local councils ended up spending more on the consequences of vandalism and other petty crime than on the wages they had previously been paying.
However, dealing with crime is not just about effective policing but is also a cultural issue. Something no politician would dare mention is the hypocrisy of most people towards crime.
For the middle classes, burglary is unacceptable, but speeding, drink-driving or pilfering from the office are considered fair game.
For the working classes, an unfounded rumour of paedophilia is sufficient justification to assemble a lynch mob, but it's fine to turn out and pay your respects at the funeral of one of the Kray twins.
The average British voter is all for 'naming and shaming' child sex offenders, but resents the work of the traffic police ("they should be out catching real criminals"). Yet a British child is a hundred times more likely to be killed by a speeding or drunk driver than by a strange man in a dirty mac.
The explanation for these attitudes is that people have always needed scapegoats. We feel comfortable with the idea of crime being something that is committed only by an identifiable alien group ("professional criminals", "yobs", "gypsies", "the criminally insane", "black youths" - in short, "them"). We cannot cope with the idea of crime being committed by people like ourselves.
Much easier, then, for a politician to add another shovelful of bollocks onto the existing tall pile.