Socialist Worker

The history of New Labour’s right wing crime strategy

by Simon Assaf
Issue No. 2172

Tony Blair coined a famous phrase that would come to represent New Labour’s “realistic” approach to crime – “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”.

The argument went that crime harms working class communities – and to ignore it would mean abandoning vulnerable people.

New Labour’s position appeared to combine a right wing crackdown on criminals with a traditional left wing explanation of crime as resulting from inequality and poverty.

In fact New Labour has dropped any reference to left wing explanations for crime and used the slogan as a flimsy cover to shift further right.

Traditionaly those from the left and the right considered “crime” to be curable – either through social change or by reforming an individual’s personality.

But in the 1970s a new right wing movement emerged that rejected any notion that there were reasons for criminal activity other than “personal choice”.

James Wilson, an advisor to Ronald Reagan, championed this theory along with Ronald V Clarke, a senior civil servant under Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government.

Wilson developed a theory known as “broken windows”. He argued that if a window is left unfixed then it would encourage people to break other windows – but he used it as an analogy for “broken people”.

The idea goes that if a homeless person, group of youths or a beggar appear in an area, they will attract others and lead to the breakdown of “order”. The police should treat these activities with “zero tolerance” – even if it was not illegal – to preserve “order”.

Clarke drew on the same idea. He argued that it was idealistic and unrealistic to try to “fix” society.

The free market was the natural way to do things and those who did not accept this, or fit into it, should simply be removed from society.

The “law abiding” communities would then be discouraged from any criminal act. Rather than deal with the underlying reasons for crime, the argument went that the “opportunity” to break the law had to be reduced.

High walls

This means CCTV cameras, neighbourhood watch, and so called “target hardening” – doors should be locked, car alarms fitted and so on.

Eventually this would alter the behaviour of those who would think about committing a crime.

Once these “crimes of opportunity” are reduced the “hardened criminals” could be identified and “warehoused” in super prisons.

These “right realists”, as they called themselves, claimed that serious crime was something only poor people will do.

They argued that if a businessman is caught with his hand in the till he would not be able to repeat the offence because he would be sacked.

Poor people, however, will always return to crime because they have no choice. So the poorer you are the harsher your sentence must be.

This movement was crowned by the theory of the “underclass”.

Charles Murray, a right wing criminologist in the US, argued that there were groups in society who will always make up the “criminal class”.

He identified single parent families as the main cause of crime and, using pseudo-science, also labelled black people and Latinos as being “genetically predisposed” to breaking the law.

New Labour seized on the idea of an underclass.

Effectively it divided the poor, between an underclass with “feral children” and “broken families” on one hand, and those who obey the law and are thus “deserving” on the other.

The best a government could do would be to help lift the deserving poor out of poverty while cracking down hard on the underclass.

Labour has proved itself to be “tough on crime” with its criminalisation of young people

But the “causes of crime” are no longer said to be economic conditions, alienation or poverty, but an “underclass” of undesirables that has to be “managed” and “punished.”

At the heart of these policies is the idea that we live in the best possible world. If you do not fit in, that is because you choose not to. And this choice will land you in jail.

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