There are deaths which cause us to stop and question the kind of
society in which we live. Stephen Lawrence, Jamie Bulger, Damilola
Taylor. Their murders led to agonised discussion and
self-examination about the way we live now. To this tragic list we
must add Charlene Ellis and Latisha Shakespeare, shot dead in
Birmingham on New Year’s Eve. They are not the first young people
to be shot dead on the streets of our cities – gun crime has been
rising for at least 10 years – and nor will they be the last.
However, perhaps because of timing, their deaths have prompted a
vigorous political debate, although stronger on outrage than
analysis. The government response has not been altogether
consistent. Loud promises for the tabloids of tough action, coupled
with a far more nuanced approach for those who listen to Radio 4.
All topped off with anti-climactic proposals such as the crackdown
on air-rifles. A nuisance for sure, but not the mainstay of the
Moss Side Massive.
New Labour is particularly touchy about law and order because, as
with Bill Clinton’s new Democrats, Tony Blair used positioning on
crime to reach out to working-class swing voters. “Tough on crime,
tough on the causes of crime” was the soundbite that brilliantly
reached out to readers of the Daily Mail and
Guardian alike. While the rhetoric in government has
consistently emphasised the former part of that equation, the
reality has been a lot closer to the latter.
Alongside the commitment to abolish child poverty within 20 years,
the Blair government has made massive investments in urban
regeneration. Urban policy is seen as a key to tackling crime and
disorder and has been prioritised accordingly. The odd thing is
that the government seems sheepish about its level of commitment in
tackling the root causes of crime. Ministers seem to fear that to
acknowledge this would open them to attack for being soft on
This is undoubtedly a mistake. On the most straightforward level,
you cannot claim credit for initiatives if you do not promote them
as your own. More importantly, politics is about developing and
prosecuting arguments. Violent crime in our cities is the product
of a vicious nexus of underemployment, racism, poverty and drugs.
Not one of these can be sorted with short-term headline-grabbing
initiatives – they all need to tackled together long-haul.
No one benefits from the pretence that tough talk can create
instant solutions and voters understand that. Doing the right
things for the right reasons must be underpinned by a consistent
and compelling story embodying clear values. Only the worst and
nastiest populist politicians gain from dissembling on law and
John McTernan is a political analyst.