The Tories think they can rebuild their fortunes by playing on people's fear of crime. Those fears have been fanned by the wave of crime stories in the tabloid papers. Papers like the Mail, the Sun and even the self proclaimed 'socialist' Mirror have pumped out lurid tales of a country gripped by an epidemic of violent crime.
New Labour politicians have played the same game. Home secretary David Blunkett talked of a 'crisis' in street crime last week and even resurrected Tony Blair's daft idea of on the spot fines for so called 'yobs'. Faced with this barrage it is no wonder that many people's fear of crime has grown.
The truth is quite different to the picture painted by the tabloids, and the law and order politicians. Crime in Britain is actually falling. Top criminologist Professor Jock Young pointed out this simple fact in an excellent letter to the Guardian newspaper last Saturday:
'Between 1992 and 2001 the number of crimes known to the police fell by one fifth-a fact verified by the authoritative British Crime Survey.'
Crime, according to official figures, is at the lowest level since the official British Crime Survey began in 1981. The media and politicians have focused on street crime. But, argues Professor Young of Middlesex University's Centre for Criminology, 'The number of street robberies is a very small part of the total number of crimes-under 2 percent.'
There has been an increase in some kinds of street crime, overwhelmingly 'snatching mobile phones'. But, says Professor Young, 'street crime is, of course, in the case of robbery, a serious and despicable crime, but snatching mobile telephones is more a function of their ease of theft than a palpable change in the moral state of the nation.'
The rise in mobile phone thefts should be put in a wider context. In the nine years from 1992 to today, Professor Young points out, 'the number of crimes fell by over a million while the number of robberies has risen by 40,000. 'Yet as the huge graph of total crimes goes down and the tiny graph of street robbery goes up, all eyes are focused upon the tiny graph.' Professor Young also gives the answer to those who claim that more police is the answer to crime.
The police are bad, and getting worse, at doing anything about crime. 'If there is a crisis,' argues Professor Young, 'it is a crisis of policing with, on average, a mere ten crimes cleared up per police officer per year, and falling.'
Market to blame
THE SINGLE biggest factor in levels of crime is unemployment. Every official study has shown a direct link between the numbers out of work and crime statistics. Crime is also fuelled by wider aspects of society. In the last 20 years, under the Tories and then New Labour, Britain has been subject to a fiercely cruel social experiment.
Thatcher may now be silent, but the legacy of her policies still marks society, especially as Tony Blair's government has embraced so many of them. Through the 1980s and 1990s everything that smacked of compassion and caring was attacked and cut. 'There is no such thing as society,' Thatcher famously declared.
Young people came under the worst pressures. They faced unemployment rates hitting 50 percent in some areas in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Tories also removed their benefits and slashed social facilities. Little wonder, then, that a minority turned to crime. In opposition Tony Blair half acknowledged that crime had social roots, with his famous slogan 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'.
In office New Labour has forgotten the second half of that slogan. In many areas of Britain people are stuck in rotten housing. There are still deep pools of unemployment and poverty, and everywhere people struggle to make ends meet.
Young people in particular face a constant barrage of being told they can only have worth in society if they have this or that consumer product, many of which they simply can't afford. These demands clash with the reality of people's lives, struggling with a mountain of debt or on miserably paid, insecure 'McJobs'.
If we want a society without crime the best start would be full employment in decently paid secure jobs, decent social facilities for all. This would mean a challenge to the corporate drive of global capitalism.
Britain jails more than China
THE PAPERS and politicians claim that the legal system in Britain is soft on criminals. That is another myth. Britain has one of the world's highest rates of jailing people. The amount of people in jail jumped a staggering 2,000 last month. For the first time the number of people in jail topped 70,000.
The shocking fact is that even before that latest rise Britain was jailing proportionately more people than regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia or Turkey. Politicians and tabloid editors who say that several years locked behind bars is 'soft' should try it for themselves.