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How the Tories use crime and punishment to divide us

The government’s plan against so-called ‘anti-social behaviour’ is built on scaremongering and lies. Sam Ord explores how talking about crime is used as a strategy to bolster power
Issue 2849
Inside a prison

Putting people behind bars doesn’t stop crime (Flickr/Putting people behind bars doesn’t stop crime)

Rishi Sunak’s Tories are clamping down on young and marginalised people with their new Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan. Reminiscent of the days of Anti‑Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos), Sunak claims it will see ­perpetrators face “swift and ­visible justice, increased fines and enhanced drug testing”.

The plan will ban nitrous oxide—better known as laughing gas—which is the third most popular banned drug in Britain. It will also hand landlords more powers to evict tenants, and “nuisance begging” could be criminalised alongside the ­introduction of humiliating “community payback” initiatives.

As many countries’ politicians ­de-escalate the war on drugs, embracing decriminalisation, the Tories are instead doubling down. That’s despite a government‑commissioned review advising against a ban on nitrous oxide last month. The Office for National Statistics also found that nitrous oxide use for 16 to 14 year olds has fallen from 8.7 percent to 3.9 percent.

And there has been a 35 percent decrease in police reports received about antisocial behaviour since 2012. Nevertheless, Sunak will plough ahead with the proposals based on his fictional problem of drugs ­gripping Britain. The Tories’ plan has a twofold approach.

With a general election in sight and hundreds of thousands of ­workers willing to strike, they hope to whip up unfounded fear while also criminalising scapegoats. It benefits them to clamp down on some of the most vulnerable in society. By placing these people in a ­category of “problem” the Tories can solidify a right wing base and exert social control over what we should and shouldn’t do.

This is ground well-trodden for neoliberal politicians. In the run-up to the 1997 ­general election, former prime minister Tony Blair decided that a law and order crackdown was required to placate the right wing media and secure electoral success.

Blair’s rule saw the most intense overhaul of the youth justice system since the first juvenile courts in England in 1908. It began with the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 that introduced a range of new and repressive powers and sentences. The Powers of the Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 opened the door for electronic monitoring and surveillance of children.

Soon after in 2002 the Police Reform Act introduced interim Asbos that could be issued before a court hearing. This was followed by more repressive laws that saw under-16s drug tested, stop and searches of young people rise and tougher punishments for ­non‑­violent crimes such as graffiti.

Blair’s “tough on crime” was a way of managing people at the bottom of society. Those who had lost the most and become disenfranchised ­following Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s rule were deemed by new Labour to be the dangerous class.

Blair told the Observer ­newspaper in 2005, “People must live together and one of the basic tasks of government is to facilitate this living together, to ensure that the many can live without fear of the few. We have provided new tools ­including Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, acceptable behaviour contracts and dispersal orders and will enable the police to take tough action.”

This strategy—a strong and repressive state—was necessary to protect the continuation of ­neoliberal policies that offered nothing for working class people. Sunak is on a similar mission to protect his fragile system that produces economic crisis, climate change, pandemics and war.

More state repressive powers mean more misery and division

The Tories, newspapers and Keir Starmer’s Labour Party are overstating the severity of anti-social behaviour. This leads to fear among people of an apparently increasingly violent society.

Our rulers give the impression that young, male and black working class people are responsible for crime. Their solution is more repressive legislation, more police powers and harsher sentences. But this won’t stop crime—it is built into the unequal system we are forced to endure. 

Those who turn to crime often have no other way of survival. If young working class people were given the same opportunities to better their lives as the wealthy, they wouldn’t need to rely on crime. But that would mean abandoning the class system Rishi Sunak represents.

Handing powers to the police is a scary reality, especially as damning reports and inquiries continue to unveil rampant racism and sexism within the police. Just last week the children’s commissioner report outlined how children as young as eight years old are strip-searched across England and Wales.

Tougher policing will see more people put behind bars for non‑violent crimes. But locking people up doesn’t keep people safe, nor does it rehabilitate. It is just another mechanism to repress people.

Focusing on crime leads to the right wing conclusions for the causes—it separates people and atomises them.
It makes people see crime from an individual perspective and takes crime out of context—a useful strategy to divide people.

There is no guarantee that Sunak’s assault on young, marginalised people will win swathes of support. But, as the media increases its scaremongering and Starmer talks of “life ruining” cannabis smoke, the tide can soon change. Now Starmer and Sunak will battle to be the toughest on crime at the cost of black, poor and vulnerable people’s lives.

It means feeling demoralised about building a better, fairer world together. But most importantly for the Tories, it distracts us from their growing list of failures and allows them to shift the blame onto us. This lets the real criminals—the warmongers, corporate tax dodgers and climate killers—off the hook.

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