The Next UK Election May Hinge on Crime as Sunak’s Statistics Fail to Convince

The ruling Conservatives have lost ground on law and order to the opposition Labour Party, and crime could sway the next general election.

(Bloomberg) — Smashed windows, arson and stones hurled at passers-by have become part of everyday life in the district of Berwick Hills, northeast England, making the Middlesbrough suburb a no-go zone for many residents.

“People are just really scared and intimidated,” said Steven James, 40, a local charity worker and community activist, who added that crime is now so common that it’s “expected.”

The problem is mirrored in pockets across England, putting the experience of ordinary Britons in stark contrast to the picture painted in Parliament by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of a country in which crime has halved since the ruling Conservatives came to power in 2010.

“I don’t think the people on the street see that, they don’t believe that,” said James.

While the UK isn’t alone among western nations to be gripped in recent years by debates about rising crime rates, more than a decade of Conservative austerity policies has eroded visible neighborhood policing and jammed up the criminal justice system. Only one in 17 reported crimes in England and Wales now lead to a suspect being charged.

That’s led to crime becoming a totemic issue in many parts of the country as Sunak gears up for a general election widely expected in the fall of 2024. The  Labour Party put law and order at the heart of its campaign in local elections earlier this year that saw the Tories lose more than 1,000 seats, with the main opposition gaining over half of them. The Conservatives now trail Labour by around 20 points in national polling, and their failures on law and order — a traditional Tory strength — is one of several issues dragging them down.

The National Health Service, schools, housing and transport are also under pressure after years of budget cuts followed by the Covid-19 pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis. The general election will be fought on these core issues, a departure from votes in 2017 and 2019 which were dominated by Brexit. 

That’s good for Keir Starmer’s Labour which has made inroads in those policy areas as it seeks to overturn what will be 14 years of Conservative rule, according to Adam Drummond, head of political and social research at pollster Opinium. “Labour is now ahead both on the economy and law and order, these traditionally strong Tory issues,” he said.

Opinium’s latest data shows Labour enjoy an 8-point advantage over the Tories when voters are asked which party they trust more on tackling crime. That’s a turnaround from two years ago, when the Tories led by 9 points. 

There’s more than one measure of crime in Britain, allowing politicians to seize on the numbers that best suit their narrative. The Crime Survey for England and Wales — regarded by the government as the best indicator of long-term trends — suggests crime has fallen by around 50% since the Tories came to power in 2010. But when fraud and computer misuse are included, the reduction is a mere 4%. Meanwhile crime recorded by the police – seen as a better indicator of lower-volume but higher-harm offences like street violence – has increased by more than a half in the same period.

Senior Labour MP Wes Streeting told an event in Westminster in July that law and order was among the top three issues that Labour needed to be trusted on, along with the economy and national security. Being trusted on all three would mean winning the general election, he said.

Labour is seeking to capitalize on a sense of frustration with the government to try and win back seats like Redcar and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, part of a swathe of its former strongholds that fell to the Tories since the 2016 Brexit referendum. Those switching voters helped the then Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson win an 80-seat majority in 2019.

Emily Thornberry, a member of Starmer’s team who campaigned recently in the region, said she detected a “feeling of despondency” among residents toward the Tories — “a feeling of we thought this was new, we thought this was fresh, we thought this was different but actually we’re not getting delivered what we thought we’d get.”

The reality underlined by James and others in Middlesbrough — a town with a history of deep industrial decline — echoes those sentiments. In the town center, derelict department stores dominate the high street. Men and women in black vests with radios stand outside shops: many are “neighborhood safety wardens” employed by the council to deter unruly behavior and theft.

This region once exported steel all over the world, including for the Sydney Harbor Bridge, but a decades-long decline in heavy industry — including the closure in 2015 of the Redcar steelworks — has helped fuel rising crime: Police recorded crime is up four-fifths since 2016, according to official statistics.

Cleveland, which takes in Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees, now has one of the most significant serious violence problems in the country. So-called “violence against the person” have close to tripled since 2016, while sexual offences have doubled. The area’s police force is still effectively in special measures after being branded Britain’s worst when it was rated inadequate in all areas in 2019.

Cleveland’s Conservative police and crime commissioner Steve Turner — elected in 2021 — said it was still 150 officers short. He described the area as “very hard, very proud.” Men who used to follow their fathers into the steelworks have been forced to turn to other, less stable, lines of work, he said. 

“Without that aspiration you then look at easy fixes, and that’s led to a prevalence in cheap drugs which leads to more dealers, which leads to more runners — easy money for some,” Turner added.

John Holden, a former Army officer who leads the Cleveland Unit for the Reduction of Violence — one of 18 set up by the government in crime hot spots — said he’s been shocked by young people’s experiences in the area.

One teenage girl at a recent meeting told how she and her friends plan their routes to school “to avoid being harassed or being sexually assaulted,” Holden said. “The way they were talking reminded me of the days I was planning patrol routes through Basra.”

Mahrouf Hussain, a taxi driver who worked in the chemical industry in the 1990s, said antisocial behavior had stopped him driving to some areas of the town at night. 

Tory austerity policies saw national police funding fall by 6% in real terms in the nine years to 2019-20 — it has since rebounded slightly — leading to cuts in the visible neighborhood policing that reassures residents. That’s emboldened wrongdoers.

In Berwick Hills, Steven James said offenders were “laughing at the law.” Youths are arrested and then back on the street wearing balaclavas the next day, “goading adults and saying ‘you can’t touch me’,” he said. He’s drawn up a petition with over 28,000 signatures calling for more powers for the police and courts to punish young criminals.

Moreover, a doubling of persistent absenteeism by school pupils since before the Covid-19 pandemic risks causing a “tidal wave” of youth crime, according to analysis last week by the Centre for Social Justice.

The sense that policing has become ineffective stretches nationwide. Over 300 miles (480 kilometers) away in Bournemouth, an affluent town on the south coast, one resident took the law into her own hands when her father’s car was stolen last summer.

The police “didn’t try, it was just another thing logged,” said Becky Harrington, owner of a beauty and aesthetics business. “If it wasn’t for me, my dad would still be without a car. The police don’t follow through with anything.”

Harrington, 33, put an appeal on Facebook and visited local shops seeking information. Within days, a taxi driver found the car abandoned and told the family. Dorset Police told Bloomberg in an emailed statement they had made a number of attempts to visit the victim, and a 36-year-old man had since been charged with theft.

Fewer officers walking the beat and a series of recent high-profile cases of police abusing their power, including cases of rape and murder, have undermined trust. Only half of Britons now think the police are doing a good job, down from about 70% four years ago, YouGov polling data shows.

“Without support from the public, legitimacy crumbles,” said Stephen Walcott, a researcher at think tank Demos. In the absence of trust, the UK model of policing “just doesn’t work any more because people don’t report crime or provide information.”

Crimes like intimidation, vandalism and street drinking — known in the UK as antisocial behavior — are so widespread in some areas that it no longer occurs to people to report it to the police. 

At least 41% of people who witness or experience a crime choose not to report it, polling for the Tony Blair Institute think tank found in July.

“The words you’ll hear in focus groups are ‘I just called to get the crime reference number and that’s it because that’s all they’ll do now’,” said Luke Tryl, UK director of research group More in Common. There’s “no expectation it’ll be sorted,” he said.

Just 5.7% of reported crimes lead to a suspect being charged — down two thirds from 2015 — the criminal justice system is another public service many voters believe is no longer fit for purpose. 

“That is indicative of a complete collapse in deterrence,” said Harvey Redgrave, a former Labour adviser who now heads up crime and justice consultancy Crest Advisory. “Offenders aren’t going to feel particularly worried about being caught.” 

Sensing an area of traditional strength for the Tories is now a weakness, Starmer has vowed to boost police presence on the streets and take action against town center drug dealing. Sunak, too, has talked tough on crime and is taking action on lower-level offences that blight people’s lives — including a pledge to ban laughing gas and make vandals repair the damage they cause. 

The government announced in April it had recruited 20,000 police officers since 2019, bringing the total to almost 150,000 — but critics point out a similar number had been axed since the Tories took power in 2010. 

The prize for the party that can restore trust is colossal, and for now, polling shows Labour is winning.

Sunak has tried to deflect attention by branding Starmer, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, “Sir Softie” and pointing to his record of opposing Tory crime measures. But he can’t get away from the legacy of 13 years of Conservative rule.

“Something wider has also emerged in recent years: a sense of broken Britain,” Labour MP Ruth Cadbury told the House of Commons in a recent debate on crime. “There is a sense that this is a country where certain forms of crime simply happen without any consequence.”

–With assistance from Andrew Atkinson, Irina Anghel and Katharine Gemmell.

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