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

Sadiq Khan’s record and stance on crime mean that he’s vulnerable on what might be the most important political issue facing the capital in the mayoral elections. The Conservatives must therefore choose a candidate that can own this issue. The winning candidate must create a positive vision for how he or she will make the city safer for residents, commuters and tourists – and this must form part of a broader platform to make London the best big city in the world to live in.

Just as Sadiq Khan secured popularity across London in part by demonstrating his independence from the Labour leadership, so the Conservatives’ candidate must do the same. That’s because the Conservatives have talked themselves into a difficult position on crime. As I’ve discussed previously, over the last few years they’ve seemingly done their best to junk their historic reputation as the party that’s toughest on crime, as they’ve begun to emphasise rehabilitation over punishment, cast doubt on the idea that prison works, and distanced themselves from stop and search.

Khan came close to owning the issue of crime himself – initially responding to rising violent crime rates by backing stop and search as part of a general push to promote a tougher approach to crime. Since then, a series of missteps means he now looks weak on the issue – invisible and apparently helpless in the face of a tragic series of murders, stabbings, assaults and robberies. We should expect Khan to take action to remedy his failing reputation, but his brand is so damaged that we should assume that he’ll remain vulnerable for the longer term.

So what should a Conservative candidate say about crime? In putting together a platform they should begin by looking at Peter Cuthbertson’s excellent new paper for Civitas. In his paper, Cuthbertson shows how the poorest voters are massively disproportionately hit by rising crime levels. He writes: “compared to households on incomes above £50,000, those on incomes below £10,000 are: considerably more likely to be attacked by someone they know and far more likely to be attacked by a stranger; twice as likely to suffer violence with injury; twice as likely to be burgled; three times as likely to be robbed and mugged; three times as likely to suffer rape or attempted rape; [and] six times as likely to be a victim of domestic violence.”

The next Conservative candidate should position themselves as a Mayor for all – and a crime-fighting Mayor for all. Those in affluent suburbs also care deeply about the rising tide of violence in the city. But the Conservative candidate should particularly highlight the fact that Labour’s traditional voters are being hurt most from high crime levels – and would benefit most from tough policies designed to deal with them. And, as Cuthbertson suggests, framing the issue in this way also deals with an important campaigning issue: the left’s claim that being tough on crime is somehow a war on the poorest. This is undeniably a Conservative vulnerability: policies that crackdown on crime seriously and broadly clearly do target less affluent people, as the reality this is the source of most violent crime.

As he says, “When crime and poverty are discussed, the typical debate is about whether – and how much – poverty makes someone crime-prone. This overshadows discussions about the law-abiding majority of the poor, and whether they are more likely to be the victims… One of the worst aspects of being poor in modern Britain is the far greater likelihood of living near criminals and being their victim – and the fear this produces.”

Some might suggest that it’s hard for a Conservative to fight on crime when there’s a Conservative Government in place with a Conservative Home Secretary. It’s undoubtedly a complicating factor – and there’s no reason why a Labour candidate couldn’t throw these very statistics back at the Conservative Party. But the truth is that very few Labour politicians are prepared to advocate the sorts of policies that would command popular support and that would stand a chance of success when implemented. There’s a clear line modern Labour candidates – Khan apparently included – won’t cross. This leaves open a real opportunity for an independent-minded Conservative candidate to stand up and make the case for tough new policies – policies that should be adopted in London and nationally.

Until we hear more from the shortlisted candidates it’s hard to say which of them will best suited to this campaign. The one that takes this on most energetically stands the best chance of success.

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