Published 19 April 2017
Five thoughts on what the 2017 general election campaign might mean for crime and justice
So Theresa May has ‘called’ the early election she promised she wouldn’t. The continually improving poll leads, approval ratings and recent pattern of local and parliamentary by-election results have finally persuaded the Prime Minister that the political gains more than offset the risks of calling a snap election.
The political contours of the election campaign are already established. The Conservatives will double down on a message of ‘strength’ and ‘unity’, in contrast to a Labour Party that they will portray as weak, divided, unready for power and incapable of getting a good Brexit deal for Britain. Labour will attempt to fight an old-fashioned ‘investment vs cuts’ campaign, whilst seeking to avoid the subject of Brexit altogether. The Lib Dems will seek to capitalise on continuing anger felt by ‘Remain’ voters towards a Tory government hell bent on a ‘hard Brexit’ and a Labour Party they believe have betrayed their core voters.
So (given that they hardly featured in the 2015 campaign) where will crime and justice fit in this time around?
1. Expect a relatively low key set of pledges on policing and justice
During the ‘New Labour’ years, law and order was never far from the top of the domestic policy agenda. Labour committed one of its five famous pledges in 1997 on youth justice reform. We live in a different world now. It is unlikely that any of the parties will focus their campaigns around crime and justice. For a start, despite recent rises in recorded serious violence, law and order issues are now much less politically salient than they once were, dropping to levels last seen in 1991. Second, policing is now effectively devolved, with budgets and priorities set by Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), rather than Home Office ministers. Labour fought the 2005 election with a pledge to increase the numbers of bobbies on the beat. Whilst they continue to resonate locally, it is difficult to see bread and butter issues like ‘neighbourhood policing’ playing a significant role nationally.
2. There will be another round of promises about standing up for victims
In recent years, politicians responsible for justice policy have made a pastime out of promising to do more to support victims of crime. In 2013 Sadiq Khan (then Shadow Justice Secretary) proposed a new ‘victims’ law’, a policy which was then aped by Chris Grayling and incorporated into the Conservatives’ 2015 general election manifesto. Since then, nothing has happened. Charities and PCCs who commission victim services will be reading the manifesto small print to see if the victims’ law lives to fight another day.
3. Prison reform is likely to be delayed
Parliament will not be dissolved immediately – a few days will be needed to tie up legislative business, for MPs and peers to pass essential Bills. Some of these will be rushed through, but this is unlikely to include the Prisons and Courts Bill, which is in its early stages and not ready. This doesn’t mean the reforms are dead – the Conservatives, should they win, will simply reintroduce the Bill in the next parliament. But it does mean that implementation will be delayed by at least a few months. Perhaps a bigger question is whether the bill’s sponsoring minister will still be Elizabeth Truss, with speculation that she is in line to be reshuffled.
4. Although debate about crime is likely to be absent, discussions around counter-terrorism and preventing extremism are going to be brutal
It doesn’t take a political genius to work out that Labour’s current leadership are vulnerable to attacks relating to their credibility in standing up to terrorists and extremists. CCHQ will have an attack dossier fully sourced and ready to deploy. In response, we can expect to see Labour blaming the Conservatives for a rise in racism and hate crime. There is, of course, a genuine debate to be had about how as a country we effectively prevent the spread of hate crime and extremism, strengthen social integration, and how we continue to deal with the return of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq. Sadly, a general election campaign is probably the last place we might expect that debate to take place.
5. In reality, there is more consensus on crime and justice than the main parties would like to admit
The PM swept all before her in policing when Home Secretary, by scrapping ACPO, neutering the Police Federation, reforming the inspectorates and watchdogs and localising priorities and accountability through PCCs. Beyond applying its generic anti-austerity message to policing, Labour is unlikely to campaign to reverse these reforms. Indeed there may well be nods in all party manifestos towards a further development of ‘justice devolution’, currently being trialled in Labour-led regions, Greater Manchester and London. And whilst Labour will probably continue to campaign against Chris Grayling’s privatisation of probation, all sides agree that reform is required (though this will only be a small footnote to the broader campaign). More fertile territory for the main parties may be cyberspace. Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter will be on red alert for eye-catching promises to force them to take more action to prevent hate speech, stalking, fraud and other offences which now constitute 21st century volume crime.