James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
For the first time in years, the Conservatives may have to deal with crime and justice as hot political issues as an incumbent Government. While these issues don’t rival the NHS and immigration in the public mind, there are signs that they will come to prominence in the coming year. Given the Conservatives’ longstanding poll lead on them, surely their rise to prominence could demonstrate a positive contrast with Jeremt Corbyn’s Labour Party? Not necessarily – and only if the Party takes steps to protect its position.
Official crime statistics tell different stories on whether crime is actually rising. Police records suggest that it’s rising significantly, but the Crime Survey for England and Wales suggests it’s steadily decreasing. However, London’s experience plays a disproportionate role in shaping public opinion, given that perceptions about crime are so important, with senior politicians and media executives resident in the capital shaping those perceptions. And anyone even vaguely involved in London politics has heard anecdotal evidence that crime is starting to register on voters’ minds in a big way.
This is not just because they’ve been reading hearing stories in the London media about acid attacks, stabbings and moped theft; there appears to be general public concern about crimes like theft, burglary and vandalism. Sadiq Khan is obviously very worried about rising crime – particularly knife crime – having taken the extraordinary step to pledge more stop and search. There’s undoubtedly a feeling in London that crime is becoming a big issue again.
On the issue of justice more narrowly, the furore surrounding the proposed release of convicted rapist John Worboys has focused attention on both sentencing and so-called “early release”. While there are endless stories in the media about criminals that have committed appalling acts being released on licence from prison, this story appears to have touched a public nerve.
It’s true that the Conservatives continue to lead Labour on crime and justice and, despite crime arguably rising on their watch, the public generally focus on which party will make things better in the future, rather than obsessing about who’s to blame in the past. However, there are reasons that the Party should be nervous about the strength of its lead. There are two factors that are problematic.
The first is the allegation of reckless police cuts. Whether or not you think the Government was right to insist that the Police could continue to deliver without growing resources, there’s clearly a sense in the public that the Conservatives have been “cutting” public services. If Labour can effectively link this in the public mind with rising crime, there’s clearly a potentially serious problem.
The second factor is the radical Conservative shift of emphasis away from the idea of prison primarily as punishment, and towards prison as rehabilitation. There are good arguments for this change in emphasis, but it clearly contradicts popular opinion. Most people believe the main purpose of prison is to punish rather than rehabilitate, and when presented with a list of options for Government policy on crime and justice, the public overwhelmingly back ideas like tougher sentencing and an end to “early release”. Politically speaking, the Conservatives aren’t offering the public what they want.
It would be too much to argue that Labour, nationally, might become “the party of law and order”. Under Corbyn, it’s extremely unlikely that Labour could make serious gains. He’s rightly viewed as a metropolitan liberal with little interest in victims of crime. But it’s possible that if the public come to associate the Conservatives with being insufficiently interested in funding the Police, and insufficiently interested in tough justice policies, then their historic lead on crime and justice won’t mean much anymore. And it’s also possible that Khan’s incredibly opportunistic, and in many ways admirable, policy shifts on issues that matter to Londoners may mean that he personally becomes the face of tough anti-crime policies.
The Conservatives need a fast, public reconciliation with the Police and to start backing them enthusiastically again, as far as possible. They also need to start visibly funding and backing schemes designed to deal with the rise in violent crimes in London. And in their shift towards the active promotion of rehabilitation, they need to ensure that they’re overwhelmingly concerned with public safety and unambiguously on the side of victims.