One of the best ways the nation’s politicians could thank those whose votes gave them their jobs would be to stop talking rubbish about crime. That is particularly so where the violent variety in London is concerned. The city and its people are singled out for quite enough glib denigration over this profoundly serious issue as it is without servants of democracy feeding the frenzy of the mob.
Boris Johnson, naturally, seized the opportunity to fuel the populist fire at Prime Minister’s Questions last week, having been given an easy cue by one of London’s less luminous MPs. Asked about youth service funding, he instead boasted that as London Mayor he had “got the murder rate down by fifty percent”.
That isn’t true, of course. The annual number of homicides in London – murders and manslaughters combined – fell for four years in a row before Johnson was first elected Mayor in 2008, continued to fall until 2014, then started rising again when he was half way through his second term at City Hall. The homicide rate – the number of killings per head of London population – was 1.4 per hundred thousand in 2008 and 1.3 per hundred thousand in 2015, Johnson’s final full year in office.
Since when has 1.3 been 50 per cent less than 1.4? Since “Boris” decided it was, of course. As Mayor, Johnson’s idea of effective action against violent crime in London was making a lot of noise about it and taking a lap of honour whenever some of the numbers improved, regardless of what might have caused it.
Note that his figure-fiddling and showboating is accepted at face value by many in the media, and not only the usual willing dupes. Andrew Marr’s questioning of Sadiq Khan the other week took as read that Johnson had done a better job than his Labour successor. Was he briefed by a Sun columnist? Meanwhile, in the real world, crimes in all categories recorded by the Met have followed much the same upward path in London in recent years as everywhere else.
That doesn’t make everything OK. And there are good grounds for apprehension that the forthcoming lifting of almost all Covid restrictions could usher in a summer of boozing, fighting and score-settling for those to whom Freedom Day will mean taking liberties denied them by lockdown conditions. Anticipating this, the Mayor and the Met have produced and publicised an anti-violence suppression and prevention plan and in May Khan announced new funds for helping people out of gangs.
Could he be doing better? Defeated Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey, having fought a breathtakingly dishonest election campaign, continues to present himself as the solution-in-waiting to crime, especially among young black men, though for all his emoting it remains hard to see what exactly he would be doing that Khan’s administration isn’t. Would sacking a few comms staff to fund a few more cops do anything to lessen the readiness of men to beat up the women they live with or subdue the murderous feuding that accompanies drug market competition? Would it even start to make up for the ten-year erosion of local authority funds?
In reality, the relationship between what London Mayors do in their role as the capital’s police and crime commissioner and the incidence of any kind of crime in London is limited and hard to define. Mayors do not sit in City Hall ordering detachments of bobbies around the metropolis like TV Churchills deploying Spitfires. Their job is to produce a plan for the Metropolitan Police setting out priorities. It is then for the Met to get on with preventing and detecting offending in a shifting social landscape, most of which is beyond their control. Mayors support, nudge or upbraid in public and behind closed doors. Crime reduction is as difficult to arrange as it is to measure.
It is proper for opposition parties in particular to scrutinise and test the Mayor’s approach to using the powers and resources he has, but they have a duty to avoid deceiving the public and exploiting its anxieties by indulging in crowd-pleasing rhetoric. With borough elections next year and minds already turning to who will contest the mayoralty in 2024 – assuming the government hasn’t done away with it by then – it was interesting to see one of Johnson’s ministers and erstwhile City Hall lieutenants James Cleverley egging Bailey on. If Conservatives have serious alternatives to what Mayor Khan is doing with the tools at his disposal, let’s hear them from serious politicians. Anything less is mere opportunism.
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