The most welcome pledge any mayoral candidate could make would be to stop talking rubbish about crime, especially their own power to reduce it. Mayors have a significant say over the strategic and budgetary priorities of the Met, but most of its money comes from the national government and Mayors play no part in day-to-day operational decisions – they don’t sit in City Hall like generals, moving battalions of bobbies around. And they have next to no control over the huge range of forces that cause levels of criminality in the capital to rise and fall.
That is one bunch of reasons for approaching Shaun Bailey’s promises on crime with caution. Given pride of place in his manifesto, launched today, they are modelled on Boris Johnson’s pledges in 2008, another period in London’s recent history where concern about violent offending, especially by and against young people with knives, was running high. There’s the same big talk of scanning tech and street patrols and recruitment. Johnson’s approach is credited by Bailey with bringing down violent crime rates, when he had little if anything to do with it. There’s the usual crowd-pleasing blah about CCTV and tougher sentencing.
Unlike Johnson 13 years ago, this year’s Conservative candidate looks highly unlikely to win the election. The current Labour incumbent is too far ahead and too self-disciplined to bring trouble on himself, as Johnson’s Labour opponent did. What matters more is whether Bailey’s prescriptions offer genuine improvements on what’s already happening.
Nothing much stands out. There’s a promise to hire “8,000 new officers”, but 6,000 of those are already on their way and the “savings” Bailey says would pay for the rest aren’t specified. In any case, politicians’ unending obsession with “police numbers” – which not only Tories are in the grip of – misses a big point. What police officers do, whether when gathering and acting on information or interacting with the public on the street, is more important than exactly how many of them there are.
“Officer strength” has already been increased of late and there are good reasons to be more worried than delighted by the prospect of thousands of newcomer cops, plenty of them young males in their twenties, patrolling post-lockdown London streets. Will they have the know-how to deal with and defuse potentially explosive incidents? Bailey has also made a big deal of re-opening police stations – something Liberal Democrat Luisa Porritt also wants to do. He doesn’t mention, of course, that the sale of police property has been helping to fill Met budget black holes since it was begun – with some relish – under Johnson. And the mere presence of police stations has precious little to do with preventing, reporting or detecting crime. The policy is a populist ploy.
Insofar as police statistics are a solid guide, crime levels in London as a whole have risen during the mayoralty of Sadiq Khan, but they started rising under Johnson and have risen right across England during the same period – in some ways more than in the capital. “Knife crime” as a category covers everything from savage assaults to threats to use a knife when no knife is ever seen. Knife crime with injury in London is an urgent concern, but likely to flow from fierce drug market competition rather than variations in the use of stop-and-search.
That’s not to say there is no problem. Crime is, of course, a proper subject for serious mayoral attention, especially the violent kind: as well as causing grief and fear to those directly affected it wounds the city psychologically, sending a chill through its soul. But Khan has taken steps to make good Met resources and has set up a Violence Reduction Unit (his vehicle for a “public health approach”). His manifesto takes a welcome step in the direction of support for cannabis law liberalisation. Bailey says he will fund “4,000 new youth workers”, but would that be more effective than Khan’s Young Londoners Fund? He claims to offer a “fresh start”, but his manifesto doesn’t offer one.
Image from Shaun Bailey’s manifesto.
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