Labour’s law and order crusade

Dave Kellaway finds the states B Team ramping up their tough on crime credentials.


Jeremy Corbyn is attacked by Keir Starmer for being anti-NATO and associating with the ‘naïve’ Stop the War Campaign (STWC) which is supposedly ‘pro-Russian’. Actually there was nothing against NATO in either the 2017 or 2019 manifesto. Whatever differences we may have with STWC over how to respond to Russia imperialism, Corbyn and the anti-war campaign were absolutely right on Iraq and, Afghanistan when Blair was criminally wrong.

Today Starmer’s Labour leadership cannot issue a statement without using Jeremy Corbyn as a whipping boy. Crime is going to be the number one issue for Labour in the upcoming local elections. Shadow Justice Secretary, Steve Reid, was given a puff piece interview in the Daily Mirror where he targets Corbyn for ‘caring more about the criminals than the victims’. This completely false accusation headlines the article and is repeated twice in the text. Not one piece of concrete evidence is given to justify that smear. Reid counter poses Blair’s famous slogan ‘Tough on Crime and Tough on the Causes of Crime’ to Corbyn’s alleged softness. 

Russell Fraser is a barrister and an executive member of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. In his article on Labour List in response to Steve Reid he points out the famous Blair slogan was actually included in the 2017 manifesto on page 82! As we have seen throughout the witch hunt of the left and of  Jewish anti-zionists for alleged antisemitism, this Labour leadership never lets a complete distortion get in the way of their campaign to ‘de-Corbynise’ the party and make it totally safe again for British capital.

Reid goes on to propose a naming and shaming policy for drug dealers and users he had introduced at Lambeth Council. To top it off he deeply regrets that the Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) were ended a decade ago. ASBOs were heavily used against black and working class youth and there was little evidence that they achieved very much.

Jay Jackson is a campaigner for the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform. In another article on Labour List in response to Steve Reid he lambasts this crude crackdown:

But proposals such as the ‘name and shame’ scheme are transparently reactionary and do nothing to reduce drug-related harms and costs, only further stigmatising and alienating vulnerable people – many of whom are reliant on drugs.

With the government looking at texting contacts on drug dealers’ seized phones, and confiscating the driving licenses and passports of ‘middle-class lifestyle users’, it appears that drug policy discussions within both major parties have descended into farce. Labour and the Tories are now engaged in a race to the ridiculous on drugs, partly in a bid to appease the right-wing press.

Britain has the highest levels of drug use in Europe, the prisons are full of drug dealers and users, there are record numbers of drug deaths and there is an estimated cost of £20 billion to the economy. Naming and shaming is not going to fix this. Alleviating the social causes of addiction and decriminalising soft drugs in a health framework as in Portugal would be much more effective policies. Lessening inequality through redistribution and investment for useful jobs as well as a huge increase in mental health services would make a difference. Steve Reid is careful not to let any of those policies, which really address the causes of crime, intrude on his ‘punishment and retribution’ tirade in the Mirror. Nor is there a mention of the progressive proposals from London’s Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, on his cannabis diversion scheme. 

People like Reid also crudely misread the social reality – thinking that winning back Labour voters in the Red Wall seats means Labour has to sound like the Sun newspaper. He seems to think young people or recreational drug users do not live outside the cosmopolitan areas of London. Scottish National Party schemes in Scotland are piloting schemes for heroin addicts that are way more progressive that Reid’s agenda. He is also outflanked by some chief constables, who being on the front line, recognise when they are losing a drugs war.

In his interview Reid correctly calls out the way the Tories have failed to turn things around in the speed and efficiency of the courts and in particular the appallingly low conviction rate for rape. However he holds back on the need for more court facilities, providing enough legal aid and better fees for criminal lawyers. 

The Labour shadow justice secretary does not want ‘to over focus on things that might have gone wrong in people’s lives’. So radically changing prisons, shortening sentences and reforming probation – all of which recognises that many criminals commit crimes because of what has happened in their families and communities – is swept aside with an empty sound bite. Specialists in the area and even Labour politicians in the past have been the champions of such an approach.

Reid’s approach mirrors the current Starmer strategy. Occupy the centre ground as the Johnson brand and Tory party collapses. Continually reassert the distance between Labour today and the Corbyn period. Cuddle up to the right wing Tory press and to big business. It may well work, particularly if the Tories cannot find a decent replacement for Johnson. In any case after 14 years of Tory misrule it suits our rulers to put the B team onto the pitch for a while as long as it is going to play their game. 

Labour under Starmer could well be in power but the prison population, already one of highest in a developed country, will continue to rise. The alarming suicide rate for prisoners will not abate. People’s lives will be ruined by drug convictions. Drug deaths will needlessly continue to happen. Recreational drug use will carry on as if nothing has happened.

Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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