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James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. 

When I lived and worked in New York City for a couple of years a few years ago, Manhattan and our Brooklyn neighbourhood felt safer than Central London. At pretty much any part of the day or night, other than on the subway, I never felt something terrible was going to happen. It was rare to be subject to aggressive begging and I can’t recall being shouted or at or jostled by drunk young men – something which has happened many times in London. I was only ever offered drugs once in New York City, on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side (vaguely equivalent to Mayfair), and my negative response was so adamant I was admonished for rudeness by the dealer: “don’t be so mean, Bruce Willis”.

But, while life in the affluent commercial and residential districts of the city felt safer than Central London, I wouldn’t have said that about New York City as a whole. After all, while there were parts of NYC many locals wouldn’t venture into, I would have said there were no parts of London I would be worried about walking through during daylight hours. The crime statistics of the two cities essentially backed up this feeling. New York City has been generally safer than London on many measures for a while, but there were parts of NYC badly blighted by the most serious crimes, including murder, which were rare in London. Londoners might complain about crime in Central London, but they could at least console themselves with the knowledge that nothing really serious would probably ever happen.

But new crime statistics reported in this weekend’s Sunday Times – and followed extensively elsewhere – suggest London’s murder rate now rivals New York City’s. Over the last two months, London has had more murders than New York. Some have pointed out that the figures provide a snapshot in time and are therefore misleading. The push back is reasonable, and it certainly seems unlikely London will end up with a higher murder rate over the whole of 2018. But the evidence strongly suggests that violent crime in London – particularly knife crime – is rising significantly and that London is becoming more dangerous.

The public response from politicians has been mixed at best. Those that carry knives have been told to expect tougher sentences (reflecting legislative changes the Conservatives made under David Cameron), while the Government has just launched a new advertising campaign targeted at youngsters to warn them of the dangers of carrying knives (which won’t make much impact on its own but might help as part of a broader push). But politicians remain very nervous about encouraging the greater use of stop and search powers. I have written about this issue before; it requires very careful and sensitive handling, but it’s hard to conclude that the massive surge in particular violent crimes doesn’t warrant its increase.

To date, many Londoners seem to have felt the most serious violent crime largely affected young men in poorer neighbourhoods. When there were a relatively small number of murders, people were likely to express concern and sadness for those affected but they could compartmentalise it in their minds: “this is the sort of thing that happens to other people in other streets”. It’s a shame to say it, as it should have been a top priority for some time now, but the increase in the number of murders is bringing the concept of violence much closer to everyone and starting to make people pay more attention to it. In short, violence is set to become a mainstream political issue in the city.

It would be too much to say that London is starting to develop “no go” areas, certainly in the day time. But the increase in violent crime – in murders particularly – might well start to make Londoners generally more nervous about life in the city. The primary responsibility for sorting this out is the Mayor, but the Government must prioritise a response too. After all, the Government sets the overall legislative framework and also the political backdrop to national life. As I’ve written before, the Party will be in a bad place if it loses its reputation for competence on law and order.

92 comments for: James Frayne: Violence is set to become a mainstream political issue in London

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