Tories go low, Labour go lower – on the Labour attack ad

In this article, Dave Kellaway discusses the criticisms surrounding the Labour attack ad against Rishi Sunak for being soft on sex offenders, Keir Starmer's law and order stance, and the need for progressive policies to address the root causes of crime.

Labour Party social media advert

The Problem with Labour’s Attack Ad and Keir Starmer’s Law and Order Stance

When you see David Blunkett and John McDonnell both condemning the Labour attack ad against Sunak for being soft on sex offenders, you know that the Labour leadership is really scraping the barrel. To paraphrase Michelle Obama, they go low, and we go lower. Blunkett was notoriously supportive of all the Blairite ‘tough on crime’ line and was criticised by the left and all progressives. It looks like Yvette Cooper, the actual shadow home secretary responsible for this area, has let it be known that she had nothing to do with it.

The poster makes Rishi Sunak responsible for all those sex offenders since 2010, who, according to the masterminds in the Labour leadership’s communications department, should have been put inside. Presumably, these media ‘experts’ have had access to the complexities of each case.

The Tories and the mass media have been quick to point out that Rishi Sunak was only elected an MP in 2015 and only became PM a few months ago. At the same time, Keir Starmer himself has been more involved in sentencing policy than Rishi since he was in post as Director of Public Prosecutions for some of this time!

In a car crash interview Emily Thornberry gave (where was Yvette?) on BBC Radio 4 on Monday, April 10, she was unable to say whether her leader had objected to or raised any issues when he was DPP. She had no grasp of any of the details or figures, and she must have been desperate to impress Keir and erase from public memory her attack a few years ago on some voter who decorated his house with the Union Jack. This north London lawyer can be as tough on crime as the next in neighbouring Camden.

No doubt journalists will start digging and show that these issues about sentencing or indeed crime cannot be reduced to whichever government is in power. Were conviction rates for rape much better under Brown or Blair? Did all sex offenders, whatever the severity of their offences, serve time inside? I doubt it very much.

Today, Starmer, far from retreating in any way, doubled down in an article in the right wing Daily Mail, saying he will ‘make absolutely zero apologies for being blunt’ and that ‘he stands by every word’. Some advisor must be clapping himself/herself on the back about getting Keir to insert zero in his text so the zero tolerance policy is reiterated.  His article then goes on to trumpet how Labour is the party that will deal with crime, as it is a key issue for working people. Clearly, he wants to repeat the manoeuvre made by Tony Blair to compete with the Tories about being tough on crime. Historically, the Tories have been perceived by voters as the party of law and order. Whether it is actually all that decisive in its election victories is open to question.

True, crime affects working class and poor people more than the rich, who have the means to get the security they need and to live in separate communities. But Starmer’s whole argument rests on the idea that harder punishment and more people in prison will cut crime. Even police specialists and criminology experts do not accept this simplistic analysis that is endlessly recycled by reactionary papers like the Mail, the Sun, and the Express. The prison population has been rising for years, but there has been little change in crime rates.

The Need for Radical Redistribution and Challenging Capitalist Power

The causes of crime, including sex crime, are embedded in the extreme inequality and alienation produced by our capitalist and patriarchal society. International studies show societies like Norway or Denmark, where there is less extreme inequality and some progressive social policies, suffer from less crime. All political parties argue that mental health services are inadequate here—even Thornberry managed to bring up this issue by citing the Labour policy of mental health support workers in schools. Although, quelle surprise, Starmer did not waste much time on such policies in his Mail diatribe.

One obvious and relatively quick way a government could cut crime, the costs of policing, and the prison population would be to legalise drugs. The gang culture based on the drug market costs or scars the lives of many young people. A medical, educational, and social approach to drug use and addiction such as we see in Portugal would have a real effect on the lives of working class communities. Starmer has reiterated his opposition to any softening of the drug laws.

Alongside these measures, you could stop closing youth clubs and services and instead massively increase such spending. At the same time, you would put resources into a vast educational effort to change how young boys and men are influenced to treat women as sexual objects. This would mean tighter regulation of advertising and social media too.

All these progressive policies, of course, require a big shift in the distribution of resources in our society. It requires a real challenge to the power of capital, which actively works against redistribution and owns the companies that produce the sexist spectacle, reproducing the conditions for so many sex crimes. Gambling needs to be severely restricted too, which means taking on the mainly tory-supporting companies that make such huge profits.

The problem for Keir is that he has rejected the radical, left-wing social democratic policies that Corbyn proposed that at least pointed to such a radical redistribution. So all his policies are based on a partnership with business to bring about some moderate tweaks to society. Instead, he echoes the traditional law and order dog whistles of the right, which have the advantage of not costing as much as radical policies and not antagonising his business partners.

The Danger of Erasing Boundaries Between Government and Judicial System

A worrying aspect of this attack on Sunak and the call for politicians to get more directly involved in the details of sentencing is that it further erases the boundaries between the government and the judicial system. Should MPs or the government get involved in the nitty gritty of complex sentencing procedures? The relative independence of the legal system from political parties is something to be defended. Yes, justice needs more resources to end the backlog of rape cases, for instance, which makes it more difficult to get convictions.

But other reforms not mentioned by Sir Keir need to be discussed—what about the cuts to legal aid or the way the legal system personnel are dominated by the private schooled and unwelcoming to working class entrants? Labour should also take up some of the ideas that Owen Jones recently raised in an article about reorganising policing so that many of its tasks could be carried out by social or mental support workers.

To return to the poster, it is unclear how conscious it was, but is it an accident that this attack on Rishi, of South Asian heritage, is connected to the sexual grooming gangs that the mass media and Braverman have falsely linked to Asian men? Certainly, it is not difficult for the voters that Labour is targeting with this campaign to make this connection.

History has shown us that when Labour gets into a race to the bottom with the Tories, they can always go further and be meaner. The attempt by Miliband to ape the Tories anti-migrant policy with his famous mugs made no difference to his electoral chances whatsoever. Rejecting the approach shown by the poster does not mean that the Tories have no responsibility for the state of our society—of course they do. Nor does it mean the Tories won’t use the same ugly campaigns. But getting into the gutter with them does not work.

The left and all progressive people need to condemn the dog whistle and simplistic politics behind this revolting campaign. We should raise an alternative debate in the Labour Party, the unions, and the communities on how action on crime needs to be action against capitalist, racist, and sexist power in our society. To change things, we need serious redistribution.

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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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