Sadiq Khan has today gone to great lengths to state the obvious about violent crime among the young. For this he cannot be blamed. In UK politics, denial of reality has lately become the chilling new normal, from the Brexit blather of Boris Johnson and his lickspittles to the manipulative fantasies of Jeremy Corbyn and his clique. But where street crime is concerned, the heads of political leaders have long been buried in the sand. Why else would London’s Mayor feel the need to start the week with a big speech pointing out that deprivation and violence among young people are closely linked?
The Mayor’s assertion that combinations of poor housing, limited job prospects and growing up in frightening environments make some young people more susceptible to engaging in violent crime has been making the news. That is a good thing, yet there is nothing novel in his insight. His complaint that national government cuts to police and borough budgets have made it harder to combat these corrosive social forces is self-evident to the point of banality, yet even so it needs to be made. That such basic arguments require high profile restatement is itself an indictment of the mentality of too much of the media and political classes.
Mayor Khan has been accused by Conservative opponents of blame-shifting and inaction over crime, but his defence against such criticisms is strong. When he protests that violent crime as a whole has been increasing across the country and at a greater rate than in the capital, the figures back him up. He has used such tax raising powers as London Mayors have – the council tax precept, allocation of business rates – to augment police funding and his adoption of a so-called public health approach to prevention, adapted from the Glasgow model, is now taking shape on the ground.
His Conservative opponents insist he could do more by purging his own spending on what they call “waste” and reallocating it to the Metropolitan Police, but even if they have a case it is a thin one for being made in isolation. The Met itself knows that you can’t simply arrest your way out of a crime surge when the forces driving it are as powerful and unimpeded as they’ve become.
London Tories’ refusal to accept that national Tory budget cuts are part of the problem undermines them – not least in the eyes of London voters, according to recent opinion poll findings. Their mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, a former youth worker who, notwithstanding his history of cartoon social conservatism, has sometimes spoken persuasively about the destructive forms of masculinity that inform violent crime, still drags up the old George Osborne attack line blaming Labour governments for the global financial crisis that provided him with political cover for austerity. Do London Tories seriously expect many Londoners to be impressed?
Not that Mayor Khan’s approach to violent crime is beyond criticism. Youth workers and criminologists despair at his advice to not carry a knife – his #londonneedsyoualive campaign – on the grounds that doing to increases your chances of being hurt by a knife or worse. Their frustration is that this fails to recognise the fear of gangs and very violent individuals that too many young Londoners daily live with. They are far more frightened of the hardcore of seriously violent people in their neighbourhood than they are of getting caught by the police. These are children who will take six different buses to get to school in order to avoid an individual they know and of whom they are absolutely terrified.
And then there is the great unmentionable in this debate – the drug trade. Earlier this year, Met commissioner Cressida Dick told a committee of MPs that changes in the drug market are “at the root” of the escalation in the scale and type of street violence, which she described as a “new phenomenon”. Could – indeed, should – a progressive London Mayor take a lead in the debate about legalising at least some banned substances and in so doing remove the trade from criminal control?
Mayor Khan is consistently sceptical about this, saying last year “I am just not in favour of legalising drugs” and doubting that beneficial effects would ensue from it. His caution is reasonable as well as well as being politically understandable. But it means, not for the first time at City Hall, that it has been left to Tory AM Andrew Boff to make the radical case for at least bringing the argument about legalisation into the political mainstream, stating plainly that the impossibility of policing the cannabis market out of existence has effectively meant handing it over to ruthless criminal organisations, leading to exploitation, terror and avoidable deaths.
This remains a taboo truth that should be spoken frankly. The Mayor is not prepared to go that far. Even so, his firm insistence that adverse social factors are integral to London’s violent crime problem is welcome and all the more relevant in what is, after all, the city with the highest poverty rates in the UK.
Photo from London Youth Safety.
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