In politics, one of the best measures for assessing whether a controversial policy is a good idea is to ask the following: how would you feel if the opposition established ownership of it? That’s approximately where the Conservatives are on Stop and Search, at least in London. While Amber Rudd has given her support for the policy, after Theresa May’s vocal scepticism, overall the Conservatives are visibly uneasy about it, while Sadiq Khan has all-but-embraced it. This is arguably eroding the traditional Conservative lead on crime and justice.
We can be pretty sure that the electorate as a whole backs stop and search enthusiastically. The last detailed poll I can find is a few years old but shows the public supported the police having the power to use stop and search by a massive 76 per cent to 17 per cent – and with all the coverage of knife crime and acid attacks, it’s a reasonable bet support won’t have softened . While women (always tough on crime), Conservatives and older people were the most supportive, there were clear majorities in favour from practically every demographic.
However, crucially, the poll in question didn’t provide results by ethnic background – which on this issue is a problem. After all, we can also be pretty sure there are significant concerns within ethnic minority communities about the impact that Stop and Search has on trust levels in the police and the Government more generally. It has become an iconic policy in recent times – for some, a symbol of intrusive policing.
The Conservatives ought to be sensitive towards these concerns – both politically, as a party that wants to win elections, but also morally, as a party that wants to represent the country as a whole in Government and in Opposition. It’s true there was a period when the Party was too blasé about the feelings of ethnic minorities in regards to crime and justice – as if the line, “you’ve got nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong” was a reasonable enough justification for any policy. The fact the Conservatives are nervous about stop and search doesn’t derive from misplaced political correctness, but from a reasonable concern that policing must be based on consent – and the justice system too.
But reasonable concern about the specific execution, and communication, of stop and search shouldn’t make the Party back away. The Conservatives seem at risk of talking themselves into believing that ethnic minority communities have a different view on crime – as if minorities have a higher tolerance for it. On the contrary, as London activists will surely confirm, those from ethnic minority communities are often the most vociferous on the need for very tough policies on crime and justice – living, as many do, in less affluent areas where crime is a real problem.
I’ve just finished a round of focus groups on crime and justice in London and the Midlands. The groups were mixed in terms of age, gender, ethnic background and political affiliation – although most were from an affluent working-class background. While participants from ethnic minority backgrounds raised different concerns about the justice system – and specifically about differences in sentencing – practically all of the participants held views on crime and justice that would have made Islington dinner party guests uneasy. There was near-universal belief that sentencing was too weak and that too many people were committing crime after crime and laughing at the system.
How might stop and search be most sensitively handled? There is general agreement that it needs to be used sparingly, when there is specific intelligence that a crime might be about to take place, or when it recently has. This is surely right. Those searched should be treated with dignity and respect and the specific reasons for the search explained. But listening to people from different backgrounds talk about their views on crime and the justice system, it’s also hard not to conclude that stop and search would make more sense if the Government talked about, and implemented, a tougher approach to sentencing across the board – for all serious crimes.
One of the complaints that came up from the groups I ran – particularly from those from minority communities – is that some people get treated more leniently than others in front of the judge. There was a clear desire to see people treated equally in front of the law – and that meant tougher sentences for serious crimes, regardless of the background of the person that had committed the crime. There is a tendency in politics to think that the best approach to improving support for the police, the judiciary and the Government is to pursue a more liberal approach. I don’t know who they’re talking to to reach this conclusion.