Friday 15 April 2005    


The Week



There is a special relationship between New Labour and the police, says Andrew Gilligan. Why? Because both are bossy and both are bureaucratic

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Other articles by this author





Issue: 16 April 2005
Tony’s coppers
Andrew Gilligan

The battlebuses have pulled out of their depots, the pledge cards are freshly laminated, and various overpaid journalists are secretly looking forward to their first ride in a helicopter. But amid the pre-election chatter one significant development appears to have been missed: the launch of a new political party.

This party has large organisations in all major cities, though as so often these days few of the members are willing actually to pound the streets. It has a big fleet of brightly painted vehicles and all the usual marketing men’s catchphrases. Uniquely, however, this party asks questions of the voters, rather than vice versa. Indeed, if it is dissatisfied with the answers, it can lock us up. It is, of course, the Police Party, whose leaders are now in long-term strategic coalition with New Labour.

Traditionally, the role of the constabulary was to police the laws that MPs, ministers and judges drew up, not openly proselytise for new legislation themselves. But fighting crime can be jolly tricky, and politics is so much more fun. The difficulties are summed up in the official slogan of the Metropolitan Police. This really ought to be something simple, like ‘Cutting crime’, ‘Catching criminals’ or, possibly, ‘You’re nicked’. The Met is cutting some non-violent crime. But sadly, with a clear-up rate of less than 20 per cent, it has traditionally been rather bad at most other things, so it’s had to settle for the vaguer, but more achievable and certainly more politically sound, ‘Working together for a safer London’.

The police have, of course, been accused of acting as political tools in the past, especially in breaking strikes. But they were at least the tools of democratically elected politicians. In recent times we have witnessed unprecedented and unashamed attempts by senior police officers to enter the political arena in their own right. Richard Brunstrom, chief constable of North Wales, told the Wales on Sunday newspaper last month, ‘My job is to lead public opinion as much as to follow it.’ He simply could not be more wrong.

In the last few weeks, a time in the electoral cycle when old-style police chiefs would have been deeply wary of political controversy, leading members of the Police Party have been actively campaigning on behalf of the government. When Tony Blair claimed that there were ‘several hundred’ active al-Qa’eda terrorists in Britain, the security services briefed the newspapers that the actual number was no more than 30, condemning Mr Blair’s claims as ‘irresponsible and likely to scare people unnecessarily’.

It looked horribly like another dossier moment for the Prime Minister, but then Sir John Stevens, the recently retired commissioner of the Met, came to the rescue. Writing in that respected journal of criminology the News of the World, Sir John painted an even more lurid picture of 200 ‘Osama bin Laden-trained terrorists ...walking Britain’s streets’ who would ‘commit devastating terrorist acts against us if they could’. It was, he said, ‘vital’ that highly controversial legislation to imprison suspected terrorists without charge or trial, opposed even by many members of the Labour party, was ‘enacted as soon as possible’.

Sir John’s successor in London, Sir Ian Blair, also warned — after the Lords rejected the Bill — of a ‘grave threat to national security’ if it were not passed, and backed his namesake’s ‘several hundred’ figure, though more cautiously. The ‘hundreds’ turned out not to be active terrorists at all, but people who have passed through Afghanistan’s training camps and not done anything since: perhaps not quite so grave a threat as all that, then.

And then, only last week, Mr Brunstrom went on TV to spoil the launch of the Tories’ crime policy, condemning an ‘improper’ and ‘misleading’ Tory election advertisement, published in a local newspaper, which claimed that violent crime in his force area had risen by 127 per cent since 1999. ‘It is a well-established fact that crime has been falling for years, both locally and nationally,’ he said. This statement was quoted approvingly by Tony Blair at his last Prime Minister’s Questions.

The truth, alas, appears to be more complicated than either of these claims. The Tories were guilty of exaggeration — the basis on which the figures were compiled changed in 2002, increasing the total overnight and making comparisons difficult. But Mr Brunstrom’s response was misleading, too. Even allowing for the adjustment, violent crime — the subject of the ad — has increased, both in North Wales and nationally, since 1999, according to the police’s own figures. Overall crime — the ground Mr Brunstrom chose for his response — has, however, fallen. The chief constable was employing a classic New Labour tactic: furiously denying a charge which has not actually been made.

We expect, and discount, simplistic claims from politicians fighting an election campaign, though not, perhaps, from policemen. But then Mr Brunstrom, as a leading member of the Police Party, is so much more than a mere police officer these days. With his criminal investigation of Anne Robinson for insulting the Welsh, his Eminem-style rap performance at the launch of a black police association and his threat to DNA-test members of his own police authority to find out who leaked information to a journalist, this particular chief constable is clearly upholding the finest traditions of New Labour.

There is, naturally, a large element of age-old self-interest in the behaviour of Mr Brunstrom, Sir Ian and other members of the Party. Any policeman, of any political persuasion and under any government, would want to defend his force. Any policeman would want to talk up the terrorist threat, because that way you get bigger budgets and greater powers and you can never be accused of complacency. As for house arrest, any policeman would seize on Charles Clarke’s kind offer to lock up the alleged offenders of their choice without the need for anything so tiresome as evidence. It is the criminal justice equivalent of one of those newspaper promotions offering to fly your entire family to Barcelona for £5.

Yet, for all this, the special relationship between the police and New Labour is real, and is rooted in deep philosophical similarities. Both are instinctively bossy and bureaucratic. Both want to make us better people, whether we like it or not. Both are touchingly vain and obsessed with the media. The police symbolise how New Labour has succeeded in at least partly co-opting what were at least partly independent organs of state.

And, just as with the government as a whole, there is a slight sense that the police, though not unsuccessful, somehow don’t quite connect with the concerns of ordinary citizens, and don’t quite appreciate how unloved they are becoming.

Andrew Gilligan is defence and diplomatic editor of The Spectator, and is on the staff of the London Evening Standard.