This was originally published by Abolitionist Futures last month – you can view the original here
Less than a month after the anniversary of Bloody Sunday Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, has been in the news with demands for the police to ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ when dealing with suspected “terrorists”. These comments were particularly shocking given the long history of British policing – under both Labour and Conservative governments – deploying shoot to kill policies in Northern Ireland and other colonial contexts.Rayner went on to say, in respect of young people believed to be involved in anti-social behaviour, that she wanted the police ‘to beat down the door of the criminals and sort them out …’ Her intervention is part of an attempt by the Labour Party to present itself as more hard-line on crime and punishment than the ruling Conservatives.
A policing crisis
This call for macho and violent policing is particularly concerning at a time when the police are being subjected to much legitimate criticism. The fallout from the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer; the violent response of the police to women protesting her death; and the revelation that other police officers were sharing racist and misogynistic messages has, alongside the racist policing of Covid regulations, and admissions that misogyny, racism, bullying, sex harassment are rife within the police, resulted in many questioning how we are policed. This crisis has already seen the sacking of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, for her unwillingness to address the police’s toxic culture.
For abolitionists these revelations about the police are sadly no surprise. Their violence, particularly directed at working class people, women, Black people and the Queer community has long histories and is fundamental to their role maintaining the existing social order. However, recent revelations have made the reality of policing clearer to a much wider group of people who have begun to question the role of police in our society. This has provided a welcome opportunity to engage them in discussions about defunding the police and developing alternative non-violent solutions to problems. The dismissal of Dick, who, lets not forget, was the commander of the operation that saw Jean Charles de Menezes shot and killed, (the kind of shoot to kill operation that Rayner was signalling her support for), as well as the wider questioning of the role of the police provided an opportunity for the opposition Labour party to question policing practises and call for changes. That they have rejected that and instead chosen to return to Tony Blair’s “Tough on Crime” policies needs some explaining.
The real crisis is economic
To understand why Labour is adopting this strategy I want to go back to the book Policing the Crisis, published in 1978. The book by Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts sought (particularly in chapters 8 and 9) to explain the popular punitiveness that was emerging in the 1970s as having its roots in economic insecurities rather than anything to do with crime. British capitalism had been in crisis since the 1950s. It had survived and managed to establish a welfare state largely on the profits it had extracted from its colonies both before and after their ‘independence’. But this was not enough, nor was joining of the European Economic Community in 1973, and both Conservative and Labour governments were struggling to provide answers to the economic questions of low growth, high inflation and declining profits despite wage policies, austerity and deals with the trade unions. These policies, and the Labour Government’s adoption of Monetarist economic policies, led to increased unemployment, declining living standards, and cuts in welfare, which in turn was to lead (after the book was published) to the Winter of Discontent and the fall of the Labour government with the election of Margaret Thatcher. For Hall and his co-authors, the focus on “crime”, and in particular the moral panics around “mugging”, channelled the insecurity generated by the economic crisis and focused them on crime in general, and on the criminality of Black people in particular.
Such an approach suggested that the state’s role should be focused on fighting crime rather than intervening in the economy. Increased policing and expanding prison capacity rather than investment in education, health and welfare became the focus of legitimate government activity. Under Thatcher this led to the full-blooded neoliberal policies that saw massive job losses in traditional industries, the abolition of all restrictions on capital and attempts to roll back the welfare state. This continued under New Labour. For the police this period saw both increased resources and powers whilst the prison population increased rapidly.
Since the economic crisis of 2007/8 it has become clear that the fundamental problems of the British economy remain. The austerity policies that followed have increased inequality and left many people dependent on insecure, often zero-hours, employment with welfare benefits for the most vulnerable increasingly administered in a punitive manner. Many people are now much more insecure – living in poor quality rented accommodation, in exploitative employment, dependent on food banks, unable to afford to light and heat their homes, facing increasing living costs and worsening public services. This insecurity is fundamentally economic but addressing it requires far more radical economic policies than either the Conservatives or Labour are prepared to consider.
In adopting her punitive rhetoric Rayner made clear she was differentiating the current leadership from that of Jeremy Corbyn. This surprised many as Corbyn’s party had advocated a dramatic increase in policing. However, it is the economic policies of Corbyn that Labour’s new leadership are really distancing themselves from. By giving up any hope of addressing the economic inequality and insecurity of contemporary Britain they are instead offering the illusion of security through letting the police off their leashes.
Policing makes us less, not more secure
The increased feeling of insecurity felt by so many people has nothing to do with crime. Addressing it requires fundamental social change, better housing, secure incomes, and far greater equality. It is an agenda that Labour appears to have rejected. Rayner’s call for more police violence, more Jean de Menezes and potentially more Bloody Sundays should be seen as an attempt to redirect the insecurities generated by economic crisis towards a criminal justice solution. Whilst Rayner believes it may get Labour elected, it offers no hope of actually addressing people’s insecurities. Indeed, increasing policing and the violence it entails will only lead to greater insecurity. It will also lead to increased division as the amplified policing violence will be disproportionally direct at Black and Brown people, Queer people, and other oppressed groups. A truly secure future requires less not more police; the adoption of abolitionist practises and a commitment to creating a more just society.